When I arrive at Regency Café at 11.30am, the lunchtime rush is in full swing. A line of tight-knit groups of gossiping office workers, builders in fluorescent jackets, and camera-wielding tourists snakes between the already-packed Formica tables, leading to a long, glass-fronted counter. 'Order at the counter before sitting down. Cash only.' declares a sign at the entrance.
As I join the queue, from somewhere in the distance a foghorn voice is booming.
"Two toasts for the lady! Set breakfast, bubble, double egg, black pudding!" comes the deep sing-song bellow, loud enough to reverberate through the dining room and cause a momentary hush among the gentle hum of chatter from the tables.
It’s only when I edge nearer to the till that I realise where — or rather who — the voice is coming from. An unexpectedly slight figure with pixie-like blonde cropped hair, manager and co-owner Claudia Poretti has a stonking pair of lungs — all the better, given they're the backbone of her Westminster café’s brusque service system.
"Luckily I don’t often lose my voice" Claudia explains later. "I'm very careful to shout from the diaphragm!"
Opened in 1946, this cafe — hidden in backstreets behind the Tate — is something of a legend among greasy spoons. Its art deco interiors have inspired directors (the café featured in Layer Cake and 2010's Brighton Rock) and fashion photographers (spot the Vogue fashion cover among the black and white framed pictures of Tottenham Hotspur players on the walls). It has featured in a Volkswagen advert, BBC TV series, and countless commercial shoots.
After we did Layer Cake, other location scouts and producers started to get wind of the place. It's a fantastic space for shooting, as it can appear like anything from 1920s to the present day.
The café has undeniable nostalgic appeal: tables of mustardy yellow Formica; brown plastic chairs; rust-red lino floors repaired with gaffer tape; and gingham curtains hanging from the bottom half of the windows.
Like the retro interiors, the menu harks back to a London of old. On the way to lunch I pass a ubiquitous Pret, where the offering includes Middle Eastern flatbreads, Thai chicken soup and teriyaki salmon salad. At Regency, the maroon menu on the wall lists liver and bacon, steak pies and every kind of breakfast combination imaginable. Desserts are celebrations of stodge: chocolate sponge, currant-studded bread and butter pudding, and vast wedges of apple pie come swathed in custard. You could stuff yourself with all of this and still have change from a tenner.
"Other places have come and gone over the years" says Claudia, whose family bought the café 31 years ago. "But we've stuck to a formula that works. We've built up a solid reputation for a good, hot, filling meal, cooked to order using quality ingredients, at a reasonable price. We don't charge more for the sake of extra profit."
I place my order and settle in with an industrial strength mug of tea, poured by Claudia with aplomb from a 60s-style silver Sona teapot. The queue is now out of the door, and everyone's happy to share tables. A couple squeeze in opposite me — Apinya, from Thailand, with her husband Rich. They're engaged in some serious fry-up negotiations — half of his black pudding traded for a bite of her hash brown, and so on. As they pour milkman-delivered orange juice from a glass pint bottle (the kind with the black and orange foil tops), I ask if they've been here before. "This is my second home. A proper British cafe," says Apinya. She first visited four months ago.
As Claudia yells more orders, a cross-section of the city's inhabitants can be seen clambering up to the counter to collect them. "We get all sorts," says Claudia. "In the early mornings, it's a proper workman's café. Then you get the lot from Channel 4, the folks from the Tate, the civil servants…"
A posh looking man in pink trousers and a padded bottle-green gilet looks pleased with his fish and chips — Tim, who works nearby and is out for a boys' Friday lunch with his colleagues. A middle-aged man, Roger, bustles in with a suitcase to enjoy a quick lunch of egg with tinned tomatoes on toast. When I ask if he's going on holiday, he replies ominously that, "life is one permanent holiday". I notice one of his thumbs is painted with shiny black nail polish.
A businessman in a suit, Mike, sits down beside me. "I've been working nearby for the last few weeks, and I've been in every day." he explains, sipping a frothy coffee. "They know how to keep it simple. Cash only, order at the counter, simple, filling food. They don’t make places like this anymore."
With a start I realise Claudia is yelling my order, and head to the crowded counter to collect it — I don’t want to mess up her clockwork-like system. In my haste, I knock into a glamorous-looking older lady in a long black coat, adorned with a silver pearl brooch. She's not happy when our collision results in me spilling tea on her coat, and is more perturbed still when my botched efforts to wipe it off prove unsuccessful. "What's the best way to get a tea stain out of a coat?" she appeals to Claudia, while I hover awkwardly. "It's mostly water anyway, darling" she says matter of factly. "I wouldn’t think it would leave a stain". I’m beginning to like Claudia more and more.
Two Chinese tourists spend their entire visit trying to get the perfect Instagram shot of their runny fried eggs, beans and bacon, craning over the table to angle their iPhones overhead. The relatively recent advent of Instagram has seen a new type of customer attracted to the retro tiles and framed vintage posters, says Claudia. "Lots more tourists, lots more people into social media." she says.
From a busy brigade of fast-moving chefs in the kitchen, who blacken big, beefy tomatoes on a vast grill, fry egg after egg, and shovel fat, crisp chips from the fryer into giant mounds on the plates, comes my set breakfast. An ocean of baked beans, thick-cut bacon that's charred until black around the edges, fried egg and a peppery-tasting cumberland sausage. In a world where brunch means avocado on toast or shakshuka, artfully arranged on the table for the perfect Instagram shot, this is refreshingly comforting, simple fodder. I wolf it down, sipping the last of my tannic tea.
Has Claudia ever been tempted to change the menu? "If it's not broke, don't fix it. We don't pretend — we're a good, British café," she explains. I do notice a few more exotic additions — fishcakes, pasta arrabbiata, and spaghetti bolognese which comes with sludgy green tinned peas. But the overwhelming majority of people are opting for the set breakfast deal. At £6 including toast and tea or coffee, it's astonishingly good value, though I get the sense it's not just the prices keeping customers coming back.
"We've had regulars over the years, and we've seen them grow up," says Claudia.
We don't just give them their breakfast and tell them to stuff off — that's not how it works here. We make the effort to get to know people, and we're an integral part of their daily life.
On my way out I chat to Hope and Alex, a couple who, like myself, are Regency Café first-timers. "We're a little bit hungover," grins Alex shly. "We decided at three in the morning last night we were coming for breakfast here" says Hope. "So you were out last night?" I ask. They exchange a furtive glance at one another. "Well, no — drinking...at home." giggles Hope. I wonder how many other new couples have made a beeline for Regency Café to soothe their sore heads.
I hope there are lots more like them set to stumble through the doors in the coming years.