Normcore | Norman’s Cafe, London

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Brexit and Covid have left Britain a diminished entity of gammons and political farce, but the Great British Cafe remains a cultural institution that’s as compelling as it is a cultural treasure. David J Constable takes us to Tufnell Park and to Norman’s – a new wave paradigm of all things London with toast with tea

Normcore | Norman’s Cafe, London

Sometimes, generally on a weekend morning, you just want to stay in your onesie, bolt down a dozen Nurofen and get stuck into a fish finger sandwich – heavily buttered, with ketchup. You see, I don’t do hangovers well. You probably have your own morning-after ritual, but what’s not debatable is that we all crave grease. It’s often something meat-based, deep-fried perhaps. Or pastries, pancakes, a gallon of Berocca or whatever your body demands to make the pain stop.

Each table is fixed with the Holy Trinity of ketchup, brown sauce and Colman’s English Mustard

So, one Sunday morning last month, post a heavy Saturday night, I gathered two friends and headed to Tufnell Park. I know, who chooses to go to Tufnell Park if they don’t have to? But weeks before, I had had my head turned by the Instagram profile of Norman’s Cafe, and now I required their help, seeking breakfast remedies to ease my aching skull.

On the way, I thought about what I would eat, scrolling the cafe’s Instagram profile and trying to fix a decision. It’s a thing of beauty: the clean square boxes of food, mostly shot from above, bragging simple plates like cheesy beans on toast and the perfect chip butty. Mmm… yes, gimmee some of that carbohydrate overload, rivers of vegetable oil and gloopy cheesy-bean combos. Inject me with that sh*t.

Breakfast is served

The cafe on Junction Road is perched unassumingly between an upholstery shop and an off-license on a scruffy stretch leading to Archway. It has no hype-stoking publicist or former Masterchef winner at the stove, but the buzz is real. Buddies Richie Hayes and Elliot Kaye opened the old-school British cafe in November last year, mid-pandemic. They gutted and renovated the entire place in just two months. Talk about bullish optimism. When the working Londoner suddenly found themselves homebound, an addict to Uber Eats and Deliveroo, they offered the possibility of buttered bread and potato hash with a fried egg on top. Since then, they have steadily grown a cult following, harnessing social media and creating the sort of online presence that has insouciant hipsters and hungover hacks like me scrolling perversely and licking their lips.

And there they were, a line of me’s waiting in the cold; the drunk, dystopian demons of last night fresh in the bones of their faces. The heartache, the headache, the regret of it all. Breathing in the grease on the wind, feeling the temporary warmth from within with each brief opening of Norm’s front door. We wait twenty minutes, Elliot regularly braving the chill to reassure us that it won’t be much longer. Then he appears to finally grant us access into this temple of medicament and healing.

Norman’s Cafe

Inside is small and unfussy, with simple tables and chairs. There is a framed Bobby Moore World Cup 1966 photo on the wall next to a humming refrigerator lined with cans of Stella and juice cartons. They have a black-white chequered tile floor and red-white chequered fabric curtains. Each table is fixed with the Holy Trinity of ketchup, brown sauce and Colman’s English Mustard. There’s a 1970s chic minimalism slant to the place that’s reminiscent of old family-run cafes that once graced every street corner in Britain until Greggs moved in and corner cafes became multi-occupancy housing. The ambience was busy with chatter and the sound of scoffing, tables tucking into fish finger butties, and ketchup besmirched across blistered bubble & squeak.

I studied the blackboard on the wall, too jittery to fix a decision, trying to pair the white chalk writing with what I had seen online and the breakfast imagery I had settled on in my mind. I began shifting ingredients and masterminding my own freestyle breakie combo. When the waitress approached, I panicked and fixed on the Set 2 Breakfast (£9.00), adding bubble & squeak (£2.00) and a carton of apple juice (£1.00). A cup of tea or coffee is £2.00, free when ordered with a breakfast.

The menu is concise and direct, brilliantly priced with the Full English works and rotating weekly menus. Looking at Instagram, I can see that lunch options vary, from kedgeree, fish pie, pea risotto, chicken tikka masala and kippers on toast. Simple food done well. They also offer dinner and natural wine on Thursday and Friday evenings.

On top of everything, the orange hue membrane of a perfect fried egg, the jiggly yolk just waiting to be popped into rivers of oozing cholesterol

But for all the ponce and waffle of Insta World, it’s what’s on the plate that matters, and this was as good as cooked breakfast gets: the white bread loaf sliced generously and toasted deep bronze, just enough to seal in the butter and qualify as toast. A thick, peppery Cumberland sausage was served with saucy beans, a hash brown and a seared half-tomato with flaked salt. A bulking smoosh of potato hash restrained the spinach slithers pressed within and was toasted on both sides for that pleasing crunch. On top of everything, the orange hue membrane of a perfect fried egg, the jiggly yolk just waiting to be popped into rivers of oozing cholesterol.

Norman’s Cafe

Not done there, I ordered sticky toffee pudding with custard (£5.00). It’s the perfect marriage of stodge and sweetness, volcanic hot and a cascade of toffee sauce and custard, creating a mesmerising marbling. I didn’t need it, but I wanted it. All in, it cost £17.00 for breakfast, coffee, juice and a dessert. Had I not have been hungover, perhaps I never would have made the journey. And had I not seen the Instagram account, I would never have known about Norman’s. Booze and social media, you see, I detest them both but owe them much. C

Norman’s Cafe, 167 Junction Road, Tufnell Park, London N19 5PZ
normanscafe.co.uk