Workers Cafe, Islington
172 Upper Street
020 7226 3973
by Henrietta Crumpet
Ah, The Workers Cafe, bastion of socialist Islington, beacon of light for the Marx-reading, poll tax rioting, Labour voting reds from the time when builders were builders, new developments with loft living were factories, and all local primary schools were run by women who read Germaine Greer whilst chain smoking outside the school gates. Those were the days.
I have been a local at The Workers since that fateful day in 1987 when, on a lightly hazy summer morning, Thatcher was re-elected for the third time and I arrived at school to find mothers silently weeping in the playground. I was a local when my father ruined my own mother’s favourite red lipstick by writing ‘WE WON!’ in giant, jubilant capitals on the bathroom mirror on May Day ten years later. And I’m still a local now, when Edward’s Machinery has long gone, Bella’s and Smokes have disappeared from the high street, and the cafe’s interior is no longer concealed in a haze of cigarette smoke.
My breakfast habits have broadened a little since I was six and would only order fried tomatoes on two white toasts (the tomatoes to be served separately) accompanied by a Snapple iced tea. I even eat mushrooms now. The Worker’s horizons have broadened too. Gone are the faded yellow Formica tables with round red seats affixed, the bad instant coffee and the lakes of grease gently pooling around your chosen morning fare. Worried about the impending doom the smoking ban could have wreaked on their loyal clientele, they’ve installed a coffee machine, seats that move, and at-seat ordering, making it the best place to grab a quick cup of reasonably priced coffee on Upper St. It’s still run by the same extended family, a variation on the socialist worker’s collective that the name suggests, and is delightfully devoid of pretension (and music).
And so to breakfast. For a small number of English Pounds (£4.95) there are breakfast selections including a traditional English, a Vegetarian and a Turkish, all with toast and tea or coffee. For that price I’m not expecting hand-selected sausages from Borough Market or Portobello mushrooms, and I don’t get them. What I do get is a really good greasy spoon breakfast at any time of the day or night. This is breakfast with sliced white or brown bread covered with lashings of margarine, pork sausages with a high bread content and unsmoked bacon. But it does exactly what you want it to. No more, no less. The thinly sliced mushrooms are nicely sizzled without being over-greasy, the tomatoes are browned and caramelised, the hash browns crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside and the eggs – served any way you want them – are cooked through: no sloppy white but a soldier-ready yolk. So put on your Vote Labour badge; grab a paper from the newsagent’s next door; smile at the local characters, the builders on their tea breaks, the council workers, and most importantly, the charming family busily shouting at each other in the open kitchen; and bed down. I can think of no better place for a no nonsense fry-up. And they still have a fridge full of Snapple iced tea.