The Last Bite: Maggie’s Cafe Is a Greasy Spoon and Proud of It
Welcome back to The Last Bite, our column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments. Today we visit Maggie’s, a caff that has been keeping South London in traditional fry-ups for 34 years.
Welcome back to The Last Bite, our column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up? Here, we talk to longstanding bartenders, chefs, market stall holders, and restaurant owners to find out what the future may hold. Today, we visit a traditional caff in South London, headed up by Irish matriarch Maggie Khondoker. Visiting the centre of Lewisham can feel like walking through a never-ending building site. It's as if gentrification hit the South East London borough in slow motion, resulting in half-finished flats and upturned roads at almost every turn. Standing at the heart of it all on Lewisham Road is Maggie's Cafe, a pot of fried treasure at the end of a long grey rainbow.
For the last 34 years, Maggie's has served the same menu of homely, no-frills British food. Apple pies are submerged in gooey custard, cups of tea are refilled every 30 seconds, and you get the sense that asking for poached eggs could result in a swift slap to the jaw. Avocado? Nah mate.
On my visit, I meet Graham, who tells me he has been coming to the cafe for a fried breakfast every Saturday with "the lads" before football for years.
"This is the Queen Vic of Lewisham," he proudly tells me.
As I stop to take photos of the cafe's old-school interiors, I get a tap on the shoulder from another proud regular, Lara.
"I've been coming here with my daughter since she was born 24 years ago," she enthuses. "What I like most is that women can come here and feel safe. Everybody is welcome."
That welcome is down to the cafe's eponymous, 73-year-old owner Maggie Khondoker. Between asking elderly customers how their knees are doing and doling out jet-black coffee, she barks orders at her staff in a warm Cork accent.
"Welcome to the family," she says, before serving me a huge Irish breakfast. Khondoker set up the cafe in 1983 alongside her husband Monid, an Indian caterer she fell in love with while waiting tables at a hotel chain.
"A lot of people used to ask me in the 70s, 'Is your husband a doctor?' but I didn't care what they all thought," Khondoker tells me. "He was a Muslim and converted to Catholicism just to be with me. We both love the racial diversity in Lewisham. It means a lot."
Perhaps best known to locals for its all-day breakfasts, Maggie's also operates as a small bar in the evenings, serving slow-cooked lamb shanks with gravy-soaked meat that drops off the bone in fibrous flakes. When asked what she's most proud of on the menu, Khondoker excitedly boasts of its many types of potatoes—mashed, jacket, roast, chips, and even boiled.
"I came from nothing. I left home at 14 to work in hotels and there were seven of us kids in Cork who were lucky to get a potato," she says. "I think because I know what it's like to be hungry, I want people to go away feeling nice and full." This generosity stretches to Khondoker's regulars, too. Sometimes they don't pay for their food until a week later, if it's been a "tough month."
"It's a restaurateurs' responsibility to look after their locals," reasons Khondoker. "Some of these guys were only paid yesterday and January is a long old month!" Khondoker used to live above the cafe in a four-bedroom flat, which she now lets out.
"We lived upstairs from the age of five," says her 41-year-old son Oliver, who runs the day-to-day business alongside brother Anthony. "Mum or dad would bang a broom on the ceiling if they needed our help. Most kids grew up watching TV in their living room but we grew up with the cafe as our living room. Me, my brother, and my sister didn't watch cartoons, we watched life."
Years back, Oliver quit his job as a surveyor in the City to work for the family business full-time. He even persuaded his mum not to sell during a particularly difficult period. "This is all I know," he concludes.
With much of London being swallowed up by trendy pop-ups and coffee chains, Khondoker fears her cafe is the last of a dying breed.
"You look around and you don't see any greasy spoons anymore! It's all cake and coffee at Starbucks. But there's still a big demand. We're all for people who don't want to queue and then get sent out after 30 minutes. And I think that appeals to people of all ages," she explains, before pointing towards 14-year-old Tamba, who works on Saturdays at the cafe. With a beaming smile on his face, you sense this job isn't like doing a paper round to save up for the latest Playstation game.
"I want to make big paper in business one day so learning how to build a reputation and make people happy from Maggie is great," he tells me.
Starting every single day at 7 AM, despite her advancing years, Khondoker says she can't ever imagine a day without the smell of eggs frying in cooking oil.
"A lot of people hate it when 'messy' builders come in for their breakfast, but I love having a chat and laugh with them. They keep this place going. I always say, 'Where there's muck, there's luck!'" Mucky Lewisham is lucky to have her.