Arthur's Cafe, Kingsland
495 Kingsland Rd
020 7254 3391
by Malcolm Eggs
It was 1935 when Arthur’s opened. Then, like now, the world was in the middle of a nasty economic crisis. It was also the year that Monopoly was first released. People ate sausage and eggs then, and they do in 2008, and they will – barring a sizeable jolt to society as we know it – continue to do so in 2081. And for all the canny allure of the sign out front advertising the cafe’s longevity and the father, son and grandson who have run the place, once you’re inside there is much you will recognise from any other high street cafe – the highly wipe-able tables, a glass counter full of sandwich fillings, the laminated menus.
But there is something more than that here. It’s partly in the presence of the current Arthur himself, a benevolent grey-haired figure, whose service is reserved for those ordering hot meals, and who visibly lifts morale in both customers and staff every time he walks past or says a word. It’s partly in the breadth of the clientele: the jubilant families, the nice old ladies, the sad old rockers, the laughing decorators. But it’s mainly in the near-invisible slickness of this operation, something that can only come with the benefit of seventy-three years of institutional experience – experience which can almost entirely be summed up as: cook it well, make sure it’s hot, know your customers properly.
Having arrived after 11.30, Mabel and I had missed the breakfast menu, so went for the closest lunch option of sausage, egg and chips. Mine was one of two birthdays taking place: the table next door was home to an extended family, gathered around several slap-up lunches and one lucky baby, to celebrate what looked to be happy return number one. The food arrived quickly and for the quarter of an hour it took me to eat it, I was entirely swept up in its hotness and deliciousness. I felt a heightened sense of being alive. If there was a downside it was that my two fried eggs were so flawless they made me momentarily apoplectic, with the countless quacks who've got eggs wrong in the past. The toast was amazing too: white bloomer, and real butter.
During the hazy afterglow I observed the chattering clientele squeezed onto every available seat, and something occurred to me about all these people who sob about things like "the sad death of the local caff". If they removed the spectacles of their foregone conclusions for just a moment, they would see caffs everywhere that are well-run economic units, far better insulated from the coming strife than the little shoots of gentrification – the artisan bakeries and pastiche tea rooms – who ostensibly threaten their existence. Not that places like Arthur’s care, or need to care, what I think about them. I’m willing to bet that they’ll outlast us all.