Historic London Breakfasts: Cafe Below At St-Mary-Le-Bow, Cheapside
Fancy your full English in an historic location? London has loads of options. This week, we head to the church from which Cockneys are reckoned.
Where: Cafe Below, which inhabits the crypt of St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside, within the Square Mile.
Why is it historic: Um, see below. This could take some time.
Slice of toast: £2
Grease-ometer: Our measure of the typical breakfast cuisine here.
What’s Cafe Below like?
Cheapside has an almost comically long row of chain cafes — an unbroken line of Leon, Pret, Starbucks and EAT, with a Costa skulking two doors round the corner. Ignore all of these and head for the massive spiky tower with the dragon on top.
This is St Mary-le-Bow, one of the most historic churches in the world (see below). It’s yours for worship if you want it, but it’s also a smart place to get your breakfast. The serving area, accurately called Cafe Below, is down a flight of steps in the centuries-year-old crypt.
It’s a peculiar space, smaller than you might imagine, with frequent intrusions of concrete from the post-war rebuild. Here, wrapped in a stoney cocoon, the famous bell is oddly muffled. The mix of materials is a little jarring, but does create the most peculiar niches you’ll find in a cafe — perfect for an early-morning assignation.
Cafe Below’s history
St Mary-le-Bow is A-list famous. The fleeing Dick Whittington was persuaded to return to London by the sound of its bells. You must be born within their earshot to be considered a true Cockney. And it is the Great Bell of Bow, which pleads ‘I do not know’ in the song Oranges and Lemons.
A church has stood here for at least a thousand years. The present structure was one of the tallest designed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire. It looks pretty authentic from the outside, but the building was shattered in the Blitz and is as much a product of the 20th century as the 17th. Even the bells went in a 1941 air raid. London was robbed of an entire generation of ‘true Cockneys’, until the sound of Bow bells was restored in 1961.
A more historic spot for a cafe could scarcely be imagined in this town.
What’s the breakfast like?
Contrary to its name and altitude, Cafe Below is a step up from your typical greasy spoon. Besuited waiting staff patrol the pre-set tables beneath the arches (which gave the church the ‘Bow’ part of its name) in a manner more suggestive of a restaurant.
The food is good but unmemorable, with a breakfast menu limited to an egg-centric five or six choices. On our first visit, a fresh and juicy avocado toast pleased the vegetarian taste buds, but was absent on a second descent. We guess they mix it up a bit. Cooked breakfasts weigh in around the £7 mark, which felt about right for the service and setting. Watch out for the coffee: it’s so strong it bites.
The cafe opens again at lunch time with a wider menu and small wine list.
Verdict: An exceptional venue in which to start your day. Breakfast food is perfectly fine, without making a big show of itself.
Cafe Below, St Mary-le-Bow church crypt, Cheapside, EC2V 6AU. Open for breakfast Mon-Fri, 7.30-10am.
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