Café Vintage, Mountgrove Road, Highbury

Most people, if they pray, pray for material things – cars, houses, holidays, cash – or stuff like getting
someone nice looking to love them/world peace. I’ve always prayed for one thing (and when I say prayed I mean hoped really hard with my eyes closed) – that a really good café would open up just down the end of my road. As in George Orwell’s essay The Moon Under Water, about a mythical perfect pub, there are  several key factors for it to be a good café::
1. Great coffee
2. Excellent bacon sandwiches
3. Run by cool women who are into jazz and poetry or interesting/funny blokes who like
football and/or experimental electronic music
4. Quiet/good/no music
5. Near to your house
6. A selection of interesting brown sauces for the bacon sandwich
7. They also sell tweed jackets/suits 
8. They have a few old books to read.
9. A working Wi-Fi
10.  Friends will drop in unexpectedly
11.  They have hats you can wear on sunny days.
So imagine my delight when I discovered Café Vintage had opened in the old premises vacated by
Tatran/Slovak Café  (the Expert Milky Coffee Makers), Run by two sisters who look like they might have been in a band, they sell tweedy clothes and play jazz at a decent level (how many cafés have you been to where they’re arguing about where the Miles Davis CD has gone?). The coffee is great – especially the Cafevintage Americano. You won’t be able to walk properly for several hours after the bacon sandwich. The men’s clothes are the sort of thing you used to see in your Grandad’s wardrobe when you were in his bedroom looking for pipes to nick for WWII fighter pilot games. The women’s clothes look like you’re your granny’s Sunday best. And as for hats, they have Sergeant Pepper era German military band peaked caps, to keep  the sun out of your eyes when you’re tapping away on a laptop.


Photo 169

(A Hat on a sunny day)

Workers Café, 740 Holloway Road

Workerscafe There are seven tables in the workers Café. Apart from me there is just one other customer, a little Irish lady called Mary sitting in the corner eating meat and two veg.

My coffee comes – it’s weakish and very milky. I haven’t had coffee like this since I was on an internal flight in Venezuela 20 years ago. Café con leche.  I remember nearly shitting myself when the pilot flew much too close to some mountains and that parts of the internal structure of the plane were held together with string.  So the coffee brings back exciting memories. And it is the same temperature as the molten core of the Earth.

The bacon sandwich comes and it’s your normal basic rasher in thin white sliced bread. But its USP is that it’s neither straight cut nor diagonal but a mixture of the two – is that a trapezoid?

What sets the Workers Café apart is not the grub, honest though that is, but the ambience. In the space of about 5 minutes the place is full. It’s like a little Irish village in here this evening. Next to me are two Irish lads in their late 60s/early 70s. One of them orders pork chops the other chicken curry and rice.

“I’ll do a runner now,” says the one with the massive grey beard, “and make ye pay fer the lot ha ha ha ha.”

The other bloke laughs weakly.

Another Irishwoman comes in and sits down at a table on her own.

“Alright Mary.”

“Alright Jean.”


A tall thin old man enters.

“Alright seamus,” says the bearded one.


“You’re a hardy man where you come from up in the hills ha ha ha.”


They all chat about football and the GAA and how in the 60s you only got 10 minutes for breakfast on a London building site.

“Now it’s half an hour, 40 minutes. Luxury it is.”


There’s a silence for a while then Johnny says

“We’ll never go back now.”


“It’s just misery there now.”


Before you get too excited about visiting a part of Irish culture from 40 years ago I should point out that this time last week I was in and the place was completely packed out with Eastern Europeans.

Starbucks, Highbury Corner

As usual on a Saturday late morning I’ve dropped 7 year old off at football then rushed to grab a coffee and continue my ongoing Great Lincolnshire Novel. But I can’t get a seat anywhere. It’s Arsenal v Spurs today , starting early at 12.45. So everywhere round here is packed, even the coffee bars. How did I not know this? There was a time, not that long ago, when the first page I turned to in the papers was the Sport. Then the news, then international news, then the sport again to check if there’s anything I’d missed (not motor racing, horse racing or tennis, though, of course – but proper sport like football, rugby, boxing, cricket).

But now I have to read the Review section first, find out about the latest short story collections, history books, kids’ stories. This morning, rather than checking to see what the opinion was about the North London derby, or talk about the upcoming Ashes series, I’d turned first to Maggie O’Farrell’s short piece about the late poet Michael Donaghy in The Guardian. Sport isn’t like ‘’Finance’ or ‘Work’ sections – it doesn’t get used for cleaning boys’ football boots or clearing out the ashes. It’s also still not on a par with ‘Travel’ or ‘Family’, which are put in a ‘saved’ pile to read on a rainy day. But when the rainy day comes, we’ll cook soups, watch a film or look for pianos on Ebay or just stare out of the window.

I queue up for ages at Starbucks behind noisy  fans buying skinny lattes then edge my way down the back where the fans disappear and it’s just mums and dads with prams and Guardians or students with laptops.

It’s a latte with an extra shot, with a BLT. It’s obviously not a proper bacon sandwich. For a start, the bacon is cold. How could it be otherwise when it’s covered in tomato and lettuce.  They should have a big pan of bacon on the go at all times. The bread is good – tastes like granary Hovis. Too much mayonnaise on it though. And of course there’s no brown sauce. The coffee? It’s OK, but there’s just too much of it, and even with the extra shot it’s drowned in gloopy hot milk.

Is that Frank and Nancy Sinatra singing “I Love You’ on the speakers? No, it’s the rubbish Nicole Kidman and Robbie Williams version. The sound of muzak, jetplane woosh of the coffee machine and general hubbub makes me hear an extra layer of tinnitus, like a water rushing through a weir in my eardums. Brown sauce might have made it go away.

Noo Noo & Bebo’s, Kentish Town Road, London NW5

I was passing this when I saw the chalkboard sign “The best coffee in London”.  There was no mention about who had bestowed this accolade – possibly the owner – but it certainly made me curious.

Noo Noo and Bebo’s (Even though I double checked, I’m sure I’ve got the name wrong) is a tiny café, about the size of a big school store cupboard. At one stage there were about eight people in there, some ordering, others just chatting or listening to the French rap music that was playing on the speakers.

For my sandwich I was asked “white or brown bread, love?” I asked for brown and so, a short while later, a neat little white bread bacon sarnie appeared. The brown sauce was a bit sweet – Daddy’s rather than HP perhaps – and the bacon was a little stiff and not quite fatty enough.

But the coffee really was very good. I had a latte with an extra shot. This is my current crush as I try to wean myself off Americanos.  Admittedly latte with an extra shot is the alcopop of the caffeine world but Americanos after lunch give me a headache as well as flashbacks to a rugby tour to Paris in the mid 1980s. But this lovely little latte – which was like a kind and gentle, hair strokey version of an espresso – reminded me of sitting in an apartment in Mamers, France with my pen friend and his cousin, staring at flowered wallpaper and discussing the works of Laurent Voulzy.

The_forum Afterwards I walked up Highgate Road to pick my daughter up from school. On the way I passed The HMV Forum (formerly the Town and Country Club) which I last went to in 1991 to see a Throwing Muses gig. Even though I’ve been in London for over twenty years I’ve never walked the stretch from The Forum up to the railway bridge (which I’ve previously approached from the  north). Another little piece of London is now joined up in my mind.

Cafe with Art Blakey CD Playing, Mornington Crescent

I went in for a chicken and avocado toasted sandwich and a coffee at a little cafe opposite the station. As soon as I sat down Talk Radio was turned off and what sounded like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers came blaring out of the speakers. A middle aged man comes in and tries to get pally with the bloke behind the counter.

– So, you Italian?
– No.
– Maltese?
– No.
– Iranian?
– No.
There's a brief silence. The older man looks around.
– So you do food?
His new mate looks around him at the sandwiches and salads on display and arches an eyebrow.
My toasted sandwich is still very hot. In a pedestrian island in the middle of the road I can see a 
statue of the anti-Corn Law campaigner Richard Cobden. The Corn Laws were a vital part of my 19th Century British history module at A Level, but I failed to concentrate in lessons due to the presence of a very pretty and very young substitute teacher who had just arrived from teacher training college. When it came to the exam a few months later and the relevant question, all I could thinkHistoryteachersm
 of was her face, smiling and blinking in slow motion, as she says something about Peel and free trade.

There wasn't much avocado in it.

Jump In Cafe, Holloway Road N19

Bacon sandwich and a coffee. White sliced bread. The bacon fat is nice and crispy at the edges and the sandwich as a whole has just the right amount of moisture.The coffee is very good, strong with a slight aroma of a sweaty Venezuelan female salsa instructor. They lock the door after I've sat down, perhaps to give the impression that this is an exclusive venue. Various Michael Jackson songs are playing, one of which – 'Off the Wall' – was  written by Rod Temperton, who went to the same school as me, though a decade or so earlier. I think it's about scrumping apples from the headmaster's garden, though Jacko de-emphasises that aspect of the lyrics in his interpretation.

N19 Cafe, Holloway Road

I came in the early evening and sat down with my strong little cup of coffee to watch  the sea of humanity on Holloway Road flow by –  families, workers, couples, old folk, kids, joggers, bikes, cars, lorries, buses. Lavazza Americano is served in a little white enamel cup. Midge Ure on the radio and he's actually quite interesting talking about how he got to become the singer in Ultravox but inevitably all the presenter wants to know about is Bob Geldoff and Live Aid. The melancholy-eyed woman sweeping up is half listening to it then a bloke comes in and says it's time to shut up now so I go a bit further down the road, about 100 yards, for a  similar coffee where 80s power ballads are blaring out and at a nearby table a young woman is talking very loudly about her girlfriend and  travel escapades and how she could never have sex with a bloke. "Urgh, the thought!" she says as her quiet friend tries to calm her agitated baby.

Tatran (Slovak Shop)

On the borders of N5 and N4 is the quiet corner of Finsbury Park Road and Mountgrove Road. The latter used to have a variety of shops – accordion seller, antiques, bikes, two Chinese takeaways, design agency, Sylvanian Family franchise. Some of these have gone to be replaced by apartments but new businesses keep appearing – latterly a 1940s furniture emporium and a computer repair shop.

When Tatran appeared on this corner two or three years ago it seemed perfect for a street which for a long time has been threatening to become more interesting. A few times I took my work there and sat in the back of the café, where you could get away from it all and sip virtually tasteless yet strangely enjoyable Slovakian milky coffee. The place was usually manned by attractive Slovak chicks who would sit at a table near the window leafing through what looked like the Argos catalogue and Heat magazine.

But now Tatran is no more. It closed for the summer holidays and never reopened. At the time of writing the place is being done up – the peachy orange is now brick red and the handwritten "Slovak Shop” sign painted over. Where will we get Slovakian chocolate bars now, then? Or Solvakian vacuum packed frankfurters? Or idiosyncratic Slovakian biscuits? And where, in the whole of London, will we get virtually tasteless yet strangely enjoyable Slovakian milky coffee?

Sainsburys local, Fulham Palace Road

Not a cafe in the classic sense. The girls who work on the bread counter fumble about with the buttons on the coffee machine then squeal with delight when they evenutally get it right. Coffee not bad, if over foamy. They sell papers too though, generally, not the ‘left wing’ ones (whatever that means nowadays).

The Arsenal Cafe, Blackstock Road

There are so many with virtually the same name around here. Anyway, they do a great bacon and tomato sandwich on thick crusty white. Free Mirror to read while you∂re waiting. The owner looks like the actor Paul Sorvino.