If, like me, you are used to TripAdvisor and its astonishing breadth of reviews, it can be baffling when you can’t find information on a café. Not even a snippet – and you know it’s been going for more than a decade.
But that’s the case for one institution on the eastern fringes of Lewisham borough, where the smell of a full English would easily waft into the Royal Borough of Greenwich. There’s simply no trace on TripAdvisor.
Mind you, the clientele at the Centre Café in Leegate don’t immediately come across as TripAdvisor types. The first time I go, there were two elderly regulars (“is it your turn to pay or mine?”) supping a mug of strong tea; and the Trinity schoolchildren politely ordering bacon butties before lessons start for the day.
On my next visit, there’s a smiling lady in the corner by the window poring over a small, gilded bible. Two septuagenarians come in to wile away the time before a doctor’s appointment with a bottle of chocolate milk, followed by a sneaky fag outdoors. Then there’s the man in the high-vis jacket ordering a number two from the menu.
I may be stereotyping my fellow diners as the sort that don’t post TripAdvisor reviews. But the fact that there are none bears me out. So, without that as a backup source, you will just have to take my word for it when I tell you that, with my 8-month old little girl in tow, I had a more child-friendly welcome than I ever expect again. It was magnificent: like we had walked unannounced through the door of a long-lost auntie.
Throughout our breakfast, our host took every possible opportunity to smile at my daughter and wave as I tucked into my bacon and eggs. The teabag stiffened my tea, and my little one attacked two triangles of buttered toast when she wasn’t trying to paw at the giraffe illustrations on the bumper-size high chair – and throughout she got waves, was cooed at and fussed over.
My daughter won’t remember the smiles or the place, obviously, but this was her first taste of the classic greasy spoon. Magic FM was on the radio; there’s a grey-tiled floor and a giant yucca plant guards the entrance to the cafe. On one wall there’s a Matisse print, on another there’s that classic shot of the New York skyscraper workers sitting on a beam eating lunch.
It’s also as spotless as they come (and that’s official). The owners are kind and welcoming. The food was exactly what you would expect. No signs of any organic free-range gentrification here. And yet this warm, unfussy place, run by a Turkish couple for the past 13 years, has largely slipped off the radar – on TripAdvisor and elsewhere.
It’s a story rather like that of its home, the Leegate Centre itself. Glibly dismissed as the worst shopping precinct in Britain – and it has been shamefully neglected – it is at the heart of a painfully protracted re-development plan. You sense its owners, the “regeneration specialists” St Modwen, would simply rather it weren’t there so they could get on with the real business of building over-tall apartment blocks and making lots of money.
And yet, even locals are guilty of forgetting there are still a number businesses trying to eke a living in pretty challenging circumstances.
Would I still be smiling after years of declining trade, of pushing back opening hours because the footfall simply isn’t there any more? I hope I never have to find out. But the people at Centre Café Shop still are – and then some, if you happen to bring a baby along.
That’s not all, either. Last month, the owner was in hospital to have a kidney stone removed. That lunchtime, his wife would join him there in unexpected circumstances. While he was away, the cafe was attacked by students from nearby Abbey Manor College, a pupil referral unit. She was punched repeatedly and had to take refuge in the upper floor of their café, locking herself in with her son. Around 50 schoolchildren had to be dispersed by police, three of whom were hospitalised themselves. Four teenagers were arrested and charged, including one with grievous bodily harm.
A terrifying one-off you hope. Certainly other retailers on the site say things are better now, and the police have stepped up their presence and communication.
But it seems just another reason to show solidarity with those that remain in Leegate – and the Centre Café in particular.
Don’t bother with TripAdvisor. If you like a traditional fry-up – or even just a cup of tea – vote with your feet. Yes, the precinct may be bleak. But doesn’t that just make the rays of sunshine all the brighter?