Cafe Olive, Islington
42a Penton Street
020 7713 6888
by Joyce Carol Oats
A Sunday morning. A romantic escape. A quiet street. A single cafe. In the pleasant haze of recent sleep, you enter, seeking breakfast. It’s a family-run joint: charming. A handful of tables; a kitchen tucked behind a counter; three generations elbowing each other in the small cooking space. What’s for breakfast is not entirely clear: there are hints of grilled halloumi and boiled eggs on the board out front but not indoors. Listings for sandwiches that sound lovely but not right for breakfast. Coffee? Coffee? There’s a coffee machine, but you can't seem to see where the prices are listed.
I just want a bacon sandwich, says your companion. Do you think they could just make a bacon sandwich?
I can make you smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, the waitress announces as you sit down. Do you want that?
It’s not really a question. There’s a packet of smoked salmon sitting in a chiller case, next to a large cake that a liberal hand has daubed with whipped cream baubles. The smoked salmon has been expecting you.
OK! says your companion, in haste.
Sure, sure, you say. You want it to be easy. You order a black coffee. The waitress brings you a latte. That’s fine, too.
You can’t see past the chiller case, but the procedure is vivid in sound and smell: of eggs beating, of toast burning. The waitress emerges to open a window to air out the cafe and then returns to jostle with her colleague. A sharp word, here and there, in a language you don’t speak.
The servings are substantial: two slices of very toasted toast under hefty eggs that serve as a luxurious bed for thick slices of salmon. You look at your companion and he looks at you and you shrug and dig in. It requires strength. It is a breakfast to precede a day of heavy lifting. After half, you are exhausted, but you are not going to waste food, not here. It would be rude. So you both carry on. You chew with courage. You leave nary a crust.
Was it good? says the waitress when she comes to pick up your plates.
Yes, you say, even though you feel a bit sick, because under the circumstances you can be nothing but grateful. Yes!
She smiles. You smile. He smiles.
Your companion pays - it's cheap, of course - and you leave.
Well, you say. That was interesting!
I really didn’t want to eat that, he says. I really just wanted a bacon sandwich. But it was good. Sort of!
Yes! you say. Sort of! There’s nothing like breakfasting at a small cafe when you’re on holiday somewhere unfamiliar, and just eating whatever it is that they happen to be cooking that day. It’s just so authentic! Such an experience!
True, he says. But we’re not on holiday. We’re a five-minute walk from your flat.
True, you say. That is also true.