Fortess Cafe Restaurant, Tufnell Park
122 Fortess Road
by Nelson Griddle
Greasy spoons, in my experience, come in two varieties: there are Harolds and there are Alberts.
These two categories derive, of course, from the two Steptoes of the TV sitcom. Harold, the son, is undoubtedly on the rough and ready side, but possesses a certain debonair charm, a puppyish enthusiasm. Greasy spoons of the Harold variety try to make you feel comfortable. They have aspirations - like serving cappuccinos or sandwiches made on ciabatta.
Alberts, meanwhile, are determined to stay as they are, however grim and impoverished that might be. Echoing some innate stubbornness in the British character, they almost seem to revel in their status at the bottom of the pile.
Such cafes are the gathering places of the dispossessed and unhinged of the earth. The semi-legendary Rock Steady Eddie’s in Camberwell is a good example - containing on an average morning more loonies than a scene of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Alberts nurse the misfortunes of their customers. They offer no consolation but the consolation of despair. In short, they are depressing, and often not terribly clean.
Fortess is one of the London’s Alberts. The food is average greasy-spoon fare. Nothing about the set breakfast I order is particularly bad (or good). But what marks the place out as an Albert is the unmistakable atmosphere. Despite walls painted heavy red and actually quite friendly service, there’s something comfortless and vaguely Soviet about the place. You feel as though you could be in hospital or prison.
Maybe it’s the insufficient lighting, which makes the main eating area feel gloomy and cavernous. Or perhaps it’s the long, cold, peeling corridor that leads to the none-too-clean toilet. Then again, it could be the condensation, which mists the plate-glass frontage of the café and trickles down endlessly, seeming to whisper to each and every passerby: “I am an Albert... All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”