Saturday, January 17, 2009

Everything old is new again. It also takes twice as long and costs twice as much

In the area around the Angel, Islington there are two kinds of pubs. There are the old working class boozers which are run for their regulars. Then there are the new pubs aimed at free-spending young people turning up after work. The latter are in the premises previously devoted to the former. To a certain extent they model themselves on a "Passport To Pimlico" version of an old neighbourhood public house. Lots of mirrors and aspidistras. Food on the blackboard. No carpets.

The customer experience in these places is often at odds with the note struck the decor. In the old working class pub you'd be served by a middle-aged woman who could fill the most complex order very quickly and would not need anything explaining to her twice. Nothing was perfect but it would all be there in double quick time. In the new pub on the other hand you will be served by someone who has been hired on the basis of their haircut. They will address you as if you were a personal friend and then take hours to bring a round of drinks to the bar, largely because they haven't mastered the computerised till and they want to be sure that you wanted Guinness rather than extra-cold Guinness. They are also generally in that age group between University and Real Life where they're Not Really Listening. Service is not as high on their agenda as image and they have that young person's belief that if it's less than first-rate you'll put up with it because complaining is so un-cool.

On my way to the Robert Capa exhibition at the Barbican this morning I stopped at a diner in Smithfield Market to get a snack. This was a newly opened place that advertised "Great British Grub". Inside it had been tricked out like some art director's version of Stanley Holloway's Pie and Mash shop. Black and white tiling and old Picture Post covers in frames. The food was fine. The customer base at that time of the morning was two gay couples and me. If this were a real working man's cafe of the kind I used to go in when I worked on the bins all five of us would probably have been regarded as interlopers.

Then something odd happened. Into this bourgeois fantasy of working class life wandered a painter and decorator. He had not come for the cultural tourism. He wanted a cup of coffee, a slice of toast with marmalade and a sausage sandwich to take out. The uniformed young woman serving, who was east European, was charming. Nonetheless you could see the cultural chasm yawning between her and the new customer. Her first step in filling his order was of course to painstakingly enter its components in the electronic till which was presumably connected to one in the kitchen. Then she made him a coffee. He asked for two sugars. She smiled and proffered two of those tubular sachets of sugar that are all the rage these days. He prised off the top of the polystyrene cup and painstakingly squeezed the sugar into the cup. By now he was clearly thinking, I should be back up my ladder by now. At this point a chef appeared from the kitchen. He was also east European. He consulted with the young waitress. She smiled at the customer and asked him whether he wanted the sausage inside the sandwich. Yes, he did. And did he want the marmalade on the toast? Yes, he did.

I paid and left because I had got to the point where I felt it was about to get embarrassing. I felt sorry for everyone involved. For the decorator who just wanted his breakfast quick. For the staff who were charged with delivering a dining experience that they had never encountered themselves. And also for the middle-aged working class English women who used to work in the actual caffs that thrived in this very area before it was taken over by design studios and advertising agencies. What's wrong with having The Thing rather than something designed to look like The Thing? If you go to France or Italy, for instance, you will have access to standard dining and snacking experiences. The brasserie. The espresso place with the zinc bar. They're there in every town. What you don't find is streets crammed with expensively refurbished premises offering - there is no alternative but to use this word - faux dining experiences imported from the recent past, experiences that leave people not knowing entirely where they stand and wondering whether they've been had. They say the serving of food is a performance. Or is that code for "we've doubled the price"?


  1. Quite a superb witness statement. At some time in the last twenty years anything overtly English became "northern," which in turn became "unsophisticated." The art / design / advertising brigade marched on, and all of a sudden an entire culture was wiped out. This explains, to some extent, why so many people have left England since 1990. It is not a place worth staying in. It is, in fact, a place that invites you to leave.

  2. I'm guessing, but I suspect that, on the evidence of some of your recent posts, you think this country has gone/ is going down the pan? Or is it simply that "things were better in the olden days" ?

  3. This is all too true. All service staff seem to have a code of mutual incompetence designed to exasperate the diner. The acid test is the fried breakfast. Try asking for items to be removed or changed 'You want extra bacon, but no eggs?' 'You don't want the mushrooms?'. It's as if you want them to explain the structure of the atom. I once outlined this theory to friends at breakfast in a restaurant: we ordered four fried breakfasts, two sans eggs. That was it, simple. Suffice to say four breakfasts, with eggs, turned up. Oh, and as a frequent Angel drinker, you're not wrong on the two types either.

  4. Four square in "Grumpy Old Men" territory here, I'm afraid. Mistrust of youth? Check. Mistrust of commerce? Check. Mistrust of any nationality of other than from the UK? Check.

  5. I had the best - and cheapest - cuppa after the Capa in Smithfield recently, in the scuzziest greasy spoon. No fussing, no waiting, and 40p. I only want an 'experience' if I'm lingering, most of the time I wans something plain and simple. And inexpensive.

  6. Do you think the vogue for recreating the "old" English experience is down to some guilt the marketing people feel for destroying the original thing in the first place?

  7. Here's a foolproof way of knowing whether a food or beverage establishment is worth your time. As you enter the premises, have a quick look at the service staff and ask yourself: do these people secretly wish they were doing this job in Barcelona? If the answer is a resounding yes, turn on your heels before it's too late.

  8. You don't need anyone to say it, I'm sure, but...
    ...beautifully written indeed.

    That's all.

  9. Superb stuff, spot-on.

    A case in point: for many decades the family-run Alfredo's caff on Essex Rd opposite Islington Green had served up superior caff food to the good burghers of Angel. They sold up in about 1999 and a year later it reopened as S&M (the 'retro-caff chain' which can also be found in Smithfield): prices went up by the extent to which portions went down, and the Islington arrivistes lapped it up.

    Progress is always marvellous innit.

  10. Anonymous2:32 pm

    @Andy, "Mistrust of any nationality of other than from the UK? Check."

    This is the one area of life in which mistrust of new immigrants is justified. If I ask for 'two toast with Marmite' and get a toasted sandwich with a Marmite filling, that is not a wonderful example of multiculturalism, that is just irritating. If you haven't lived here for several years, you are not qualified to grapple with English breakfast habits.