diamond geezer

 Monday, November 16, 2020

Back when blogging started, one of the topics most likely to inspire attention was London's cafe culture. Not your Starbucks and Caffè Neros because they had yet to explode across Britain, but classic greasy spoons with formica tables and plastic ketchup bottles. There was a feeling these establishments were special, yet probably on their way out, so it was important to celebrate and catalogue them with words and (it being the early 2000s) a few tiny jpegs.

Most of these cafes have indeed long gone. The New Piccadilly. The Barbican Grill. The Piccolo Sandwich Bar. But if you wanted a proper central London fry-up there were still places to go, for example The Shepherdess on the City Road. Here it is in 2014.

This corner cafe with huge windows had something of the conservatory about it. The exterior, featuring a timber fascia above brightly painted brick, mimicked the palette of a 1970s mint-choc-chip dessert. Russell Davies on his seminal blog eggbaconchipsandbeans thought the grub "lovely", the chips "golden and crunchy" and the chairs "like a job lot from a garden centre".

In my 2004 copy of London Caffs, Edwin Heathcote wrote
"The resolutely unhip imitation bamboo, fixed metal seating (with yellow Leatherette) is powerfully ugly (although the banquettes around the perimeter are better). The check curtains badly painted on the windows do little to enhance the aesthetic. Yet the almost wholly unattractive interior retains the feel of a proper London caff."
It looked like this inside when I poked my camera up against the window last autumn.

The place didn't open on Sundays, so those blankets over the counter and coffee machine were to keep everything shipshape for Monday morning. All the condiments were ready and waiting on the tables, including generic red and brown squeezy bottles. A large wooden fan hung from the ceiling and a smaller plastic one twirled on the counter. Boxes of Kit Kats and Toffee Crisps awaited greedy fingers. On the back wall were photo montages of happy punters plus the all-important menu scrawled in black fibre-tip. Bacon sandwich £2.95. Sardine & Onion bagel £3.10. Spicy Chicken & Cheese ciabatta £4.50. Apple pie £1.80. Sorry, the breakfasts were just out of shot so I can't list you one of those.

And then 2020 happened. The Shepherdess shut down temporarily along with everywhere else, but then in July shut down for good.
Dear Patrons of the Shepherdess Cafe.
It is with great sadness that after 37 years we have decided to close the Shepherdess Cafe. Circumstances and Covid 19 has made it extremely difficult to continue as we were. High rents that are non negotiable by the agents and landlords, during this time of global crisis is totally unacceptable. Thank you all for your loyalty and custom over the years, we shall miss you all.
Another caff bites the dust, dammit.

...but, unexpectedly, it's metamorphosed into something new. The Shepherdess BBQ Cafe.

New awnings confirm the shoehorning of the letters BBQ into the cafe's name, and a less greasy shift of culinary direction. All the windows have been replaced, which means the painted curtains are probably in a skip somewhere. The green brickwork is gone, covered by vinyl that looks like bricks but isn't. The pastoral image of a shepherdess has vanished from the upper fascia and been replaced by gold Mediterranean-looking letters. And a rim of metallic spotlights has been fixed up top because the new owners are no longer content to rely on illumination blazing from within.

The cafe isn't open yet.

Peering in through the window reveals a serious makeover well past its halfway point, but still with a can of Ronseal Wood Filler stashed on top of a binliner. Whoever's bought the new cafe seems to like wood because there's a lot of it, including the tabletops, decorative panels and the majority of the chairs. Pseudo-vintage glass lampshades hang from an industrial ceiling. The shelves at the rear are all back-mirrored. The biggest break from the past, and true heresy for former Shepherdess fans, is the appearance of four large video screens on the wall where the menu used to be. Evidence from the kitchen area confirms the presence of dozens of sundae glasses, so this isn't going to be a total break from the past. But it's still too early to tell what the ketchup situation is going to be, and my hunch is that the new cafe has something a tad spicier in mind.

As well as a change in name and decor, a new website has appeared. It says THIS SITE IS NOT LIVE YET. THE INFORMATION PROVIDED IS SUBJECT TO REVIEW, so best not jump to too many conclusions, but the mobile-friendly delivery-capable format confirms the cafe's leap into the 21st century. The top of the menu is still Set Breakfasts, but further down is a new 'Shepherdess Breakfast' of two fried eggs, grilled halloumi, olives, tomatoes, cucumber and peppers. Reassuringly Liver, Bacon, Chips & Peas is still available for lunch, but so are Chicken Shish With Yoghurt and Ali Nazik Kebab. I see Apple Crumble & Custard remains, but baklava and unadventurous ice cream form the majority of the dessert menu. It all suggests the Shepherdess is edging very much towards the Turkish (but, as they say, all this is subject to review).

The new cafe looks smart in a Bexleyheath High Street kind of way. A modern design that's warm but not cosy, unexciting but inoffensive, and comfortably straddling the midpoint of common and posh. If it had appeared elsewhere there'd be nothing to object to, indeed in present times it's reassuring to know the new owners think they can make a go of the place economically. It's only those who've eaten here before who'll mourn the passing of the salt beef bap, the generic brown sauce and milky tea by the mugful. London's cafe culture is changing, as it must do to survive, but give me sausage and bacon over a BBQ grill any day.

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