How the World Rediscovered the Beauty of the Humble Caff

Here at Brunch in the UK, we love keeping up with the latest brunch trends and hottest restaurants. But we also know that flashy novelty isn’t everything – and that we can all stand to be reminded of this fact occasionally! Here to keep us grounded is our new Brunch in the UK columnist, Joe Baiamonte, with his first in a series on why we should celebrate the classics.

Peeling Formica, worn-out wood panelling, chipped mugs and mismatched crockery. Plates heaving with portions that could submerge a decent-sized rural village. Smoke-stained upholstery, scuffed-up salt shakers and ancient bottles of vinegar. Spawling, marker-penned menus and well-squeezed red and brown sauce bottles.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: long live the humble caff.

It did feel, for a considerable amount of time, as though the caff – whether it be a greasy spoon or a sandwich shop, or really anywhere with an old TV set fixed to the wall and a fishtank near the counter – had been cruelly sidelined by establishments chasing aesthetics. Restauranteurs across the country (and much of the world, for that matter) have spent the better part of the last decade carefully curating their spaces and plates for the social media generation to indulge in. Some did it impeccably. Others, not so much.

Meanwhile, bravely ploughing on, away from artisanal brunches and ‘quirky’ cocktails in jam jars were the family-owned, multi-generational institutions. Influencer-shunning establishments that have long been the heart and soul of their respective communities.

The explosion of Instagram saw far too many spots prioritising sizzle over steak. Taste took a backseat to filters. The surface level replaced the sustenance, and suddenly our social feeds were brought under a barrage of bougie nonsense and ill-fated viral food trends. Of course, this wasn’t a universal problem. Plenty of bars and restaurants constructed plates that were works of art in both their ingenious presentation and their combination of flavours.

But the tipping point for this style-over-substance approach arguably arrived over the last three years. Both the Covid-19 pandemic and the current cost of living crisis have forced customers to re-evaluate. Restaurant-goers now have far less disposable income, given that turning on the oven for 20 minutes will cost them the debt of a developing nation. What’s more, being restricted from seeing loved ones for months on end has made people appreciate home comforts and community more than ever.

As a result, there’s been a resurgence in the old reliables. The places that feel like stepping into a family kitchen, as if it were your grandma or granddad behind the stove. The places that have the same pots, pans and interiors as they did 30 years ago. Dripping in charm and condensation, everywhere from fry-up spots to curry houses to red sauce joints to Cantonese caffs are suddenly in vogue.

This can partly be attributed to the viral influence of Norman’s Cafe: the stripped-back, gingham-curtained Instagram phenomenon, churning out photo after photo of bacon butties, sausages, chips and beans, sponge and custard. A modern take on the classics, if you will. Their unironic art has struck a real chord with the masses.

Despite being a recent addition to North London, Norman’s already feels as culturally entrenched in the area as the Arsenal vs. Tottenham rivalry. Their food and their feed are fervently discussed across social media on a daily basis. Restaurants across the country are attempting to replicate their work as I type this.

Other Instagram accounts, such as the wondrous Caffs Not Cafes, have found similar success with a historical approach, so to speak. They do a brilliant job highlighting the old snack bars and decades-old delis that are still going strong in the present day.

Similarly, on the other side of the Atlantic, James and Karla Murray have amassed over 100,000 followers by chronicling their visits to various dive bars, old man pubs, candy stores and pizzerias. (Such efforts hark back to the halcyon days of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives; were Guy Fieri to visit any of these iconic English breakfast-hocking caffs in London, I’m certain he’d be thrilled.)

The relentless hunt for authenticity in this day and age can be as frustrating as it can be exhausting. Overly opinionated, self-styled critics and ‘experts’ argue fruitlessly over what makes certain establishments ‘authentic’, but barely allow for any new interpretations or evolutions in the cooking and development of various cuisines.

However, when it comes to the humble caff, there can be no arguing the authenticity. Neighbourhoods are built around these spots. They are timeless, charming and vital. They keep communities ticking over in bad times as well as good. Their current renaissance could not be more appreciated, by this author at least. Long may it continue.