At what other establishment can you expect to meet three generations of women on a family outing, and chat to a cross-dresser named Dave, all in the same day?
Among London's short list of 24-Hour eateries (and drinkeries), is Polo Bar, just across from Liverpool Street station. A quirkily furnished, unassuming place that I, in an attempt at some good old-fashioned do-it don't just Google-it journalism, spent 24 hours straight in.
Why on Earth would I want to spend that long anywhere, let alone a caff? Well, A, insanity. B, curiosity. And C, I am now officially the person who has spent the longest at Polo Bar ever. A badge I shall wear with honour until some poor sod spends 25 hours there.
I arrive at Polo Bar at 8am on a drizzly Friday morning, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready for action.
Suits and suitcases queue out the door from the moment I arrive. "You look very smart today, as always!" Philip Inzani, born and bred Londoner — and Polo Bar's owner — exclaims from behind the counter as I saunter up.
I stand aghast at his barefaced lie, until I realise he's not speaking to me, but the man behind me, Rob. Rob runs a financial services company and comes in here most mornings for his coffee.
This is a regular occurrence. Regulars that is. And them being lauded by Philip's sunny greetings every morning. They pile in, some smiling, some preparing themselves silently for the day ahead. There's even a phone regular I gather: Brenda.
"HELLO BRENDA HOW ARE YOU TODAY?" Philip chimes gleefully down the phone — a phone that is in constant use between the hours of 8 and 9.30am.
To be fair, I'd become a regular if it meant being greeted by Philip's glass-half-full demeanour every morning in an area that isn't necessarily renowned for its friendliness. There's a personable nature to everyone that works at Polo Bar, and a homely vibe to the cafe. I feel all warm inside as I pull up a chair — and I haven't even had my first cup of tea yet.
At 9.30am I order the eggs royale with salmon. They absolutely do not disappoint, and now I'm not sure whether to class this place as a 'caff' or a 'cafe'.
This is, I realise, going to be an interesting day. Aside from the suits, there's not one person in here that looks at all similar.
The place is heaving with noise, the good kind, the kind that's comforting over breakfast. So comforting, I notice two tables behind me have started chatting; an elderly lady and a much younger man in a gym kit. They're laughing along to their newfound friendship — who knows what it started over… a dropped fork? Both been to legs, bums and tums?
I wonder where else in London two such different people would be found doing anything but barking at each other to move down the tube carriage at this time of day.
The most memorable of regulars, Shantha, comes in around noon. She orders her meal: "Two poached eggs. Semi well done. No butter." Popping his head out the kitchen, he shouts, "I knew it was you! No one else orders A SEMI!"
Shantha tells me she likes Polo Bar because she can order whatever she wants, in any fashion. "They're very accommodating."
The amount of regulars is impressive for somewhere so central, especially at this price point. Maybe you'd get it at Duck & Waffle or somewhere fancy like that, but I imagine that’s more of a "Hello Jeeves, I'll have my regular table please" relationship — not one where jokes about semis are the usual crack.
I venture upstairs, and through a midst of 'Friday fizz' and working lunches, I run into two great men: Ron and John. They're best friends who meet up monthly to walk around London. I ask them what they like best about Polo Bar. "Good breakfast, good atmosphere," they agree.
Nearby young at heart Ron and John are literally young Geneva, 17 and Pablo, 19. They've come to London from Barcelona for a university open day at Central St. Martins. I ask them what they like best about Polo Bar. The interiors "very British, but very weird," Geneva answers, referencing the eclectic, taxidermy grizzly bear to her left. "I like it!"
At 1pm Grace, my vegan friend, shows up. The first thing she asks is what's vegan on the menu. (Classic vegan.) "For the sake of all the vegan Londoners out there," Grace adds. They tell her that anything veggie on the menu can be made vegan.
Philip tells me about the vegan options being added to the menu, like their new Vegan Full English. "If you don't respond to the demand of a trend you're behind, we'd end up losing out."
Grace orders the veggie sandwich, no eggs. I order a fish finger sandwich. Like most things at Polo Bar, they're too big for our mouths — the way all good sandwiches are.
Soon after I meet three women having a 'family day'. Kelly, in her mid-30s, Callie-Mae, about 10 and Debbie, about 60 — have all ordered different flavours of Polo Bar's award-winning pancakes. Which one's the best? "OREO!" Callie-Mae exclaims. You would say that Callie-Mae, you're 10.
Debbie and Callie-Mae aren't the only ones to pass the pancakes down a generation or two. I learn from Philip that, although he bought Polo Bar about five years ago, his aunt used to own the place in the 60s when it was just one floor (not three), and had no bathroom.
"It's really come full circle," he says, "We’re not a corporate company, we're not a chain. It brings its difficulties, but it brings its advantages. We've got a real family vibe going on here."
Time for the most important meal of the day: A 6pm craft beer. I order the Bethnal Pale Ale, the most popular beer on the menu second only to the Camden Hells I'm told.
It. Is. Good.
The evening clientele at Polo Bar are not demonstrably different from this morning's, although their reasons for being here almost definitely are. It's either love or liquor, with little in between.
I speak to a couple on a date, Marcus and Adele. Taking the meaning of 'skip straight to desert' to a new level, they order only the chocolate brownie and the carrot cake. If you're ever going to take a date to Polo Bar, 6pm would be a good time.
At around 7.30pm Andrew, a flamboyant architect from Pimlico arrives to line his stomach before a pool party at Shoreditch House.
"I've just been to some fine dining place around the corner," he says, all very 'how now brown cow'. "But I came from that to this, because this place has character."
I realise he's a little drunk when he barks down the phone: "Jeremy! I'll be with you soon. I've just been interviewed by The Evening bloody Standard!"
My friend Pat arrives around 8.30 and, strong man that he is, orders a full English — by far Polo Bar's most popular dish — for dinner. I order the bacon and maple syrup pancakes for myself.
Philip tells me that Polo Bar shifts 250 kilos of bacon a week. It feels nice to be a part of something.
10pm: The Descent
As the Friday fizz ends the staff swap the breakfast pastries on display for more substantial post-pub grub: hot dogs and chicken wraps. This really sets the tone for the next 10 hours.
It seems that if 10am is a good time to meet someone that works in the finance industry, then 10pm is as good a time to meet someone with a man-bun.
I take a picture of some people behind me and, as if I'm in a David Lynch film, one of them — a strange looking man in a cowboy hat — comes over to give me his card.
It gives a link to his webpage, where I learn the man's name is Ed McGory. Part-time software consultant, part-time country music star in the making.
There's an argument behind me between a customer and a waiter. "No, no, no… I didn't ask for a CROISSANT… I asked for COURVOISIER mate!"
It is at about this point that I wonder what Ron and John are up to.
At midnight it starts to kick off. The bouncers arrive.
I ask one, Joel, what's the weirdest thing that's happened to him working here. "Well… one woman came in asking for the toilet and, rather than wait, just pissed right then and there in the doorway. She was pretty and everything!"
At about 1am, these funny looking sausages and mash are plated up… And the place is heaving with customers.
The party goes strong for the next three hours, with groups of party-goers and party-beeners hoarding in for the late night burgers, pancakes, some brave soul even orders a steak and ale pie.
I think some people I chat to are confused by the fancy camera I'm holding, and think that I'm the bar's photographer.
"Take a photo mate!"
I'm too polite not to oblige.
I spot a sheepish, and notably smart, couple in the midst of it all: Pippa and Sarah. They're lawyers who've just finished working on a big case, so decided to come in for a bottle of red and some dinner after a stressful day.
"Isn't it stressful being in the midst of all this chaos?" I ask.
"We haven't really noticed, the wine is too good!"
By 4am, other than the odd drunken boyfriend being dragged out by his girlfriend, I have to admit I haven’t seen any 'sights' as of yet. In fact I've just met some of the best-looking people I’ve seen all day: Shaunaugh, Chelsea and Grace.
I make a joke about still looking on fleek at 4am. They laugh politely.
I think they are just thankful to have someone to shield them from the growing table of revellers to their left.
Like a lost-and-found box of drunk people, strangers have been piling in and making mates with each other while they wait for their train, or, as one man in a suit tells me, waits for his "life to sort itself out."
At the helm of the knees-up, is Phil, a regular who comes in when he gets too drunk and misses his train. He's made friends with someone also called Phil (I think he might be lying to me), and they insist I take a picture of them.
"THIS MAN HERE IS PROPER FUCKING GEEZER!" Phil 1 shouts to me about Phil 2.
At 6am the breakfast menu goes back up out front. I start looking longingly for the door. Ironically Polo Bar, being 24/7 and all, doesn't even have one. They just put a big board up on Christmas Day.
I chat to Dave, a man wearing a dress, as he describes himself, who is the most well-spoken (or at least able to speak) person I've met for the past four hours. He’s been out around Old Street tonight.
After Dave leaves I realise it's 6am and almost time to ascertain my freedom from Polo Bar. The hours between 6am and 8am are the calmest I've experienced all day, and the most contained.
As I look around all I can see is a few stragglers still waiting for their Ubers, and some chips which I, at a low-point, consider having.
Turning for the loos before my bus home I bump into an ambulance driver, just clocking off from his night shift. I take his appearance as a sign of my saviour: I’ve made it the whole 24-hours alive, well, and just about kicking.