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? Today, we make a pit stop at Ace Cafe, a London transport caff that opened in 1938 and is still a popular meeting place for motorcycle enthusiasts.
The sun's blazing down on the tarmac car park of an old transport cafe on London's North Circular road, warming the leather backs of bikers drinking tea and eyeing each other's motorcycles. Two young guys in their twenties chat and tuck into hot cross buns, and nearby a small girl in a tulle skirt prances about with her dad. Every few minutes, a new bike snarls in and everyone turns their head to watch.
This is the Ace Cafe, a roadside institution much loved by bikers, boy racers, and fans of fry-ups. It first opened in 1936, and in the 50s, Rockers gathered here to drink tea and slot coins into the jukebox, challenging each other to breakneck races in which they had to return before the ending of a rock 'n' roll single.
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Today, the atmosphere's more placid, and regulars visit Ace to break a ride with burgers, groaning plates of chili, cheesy chips, and instant coffee. "It's pit stop food to fill you up. People want to eat a good plate of stodge," says Glenn, a Geordie who works here while studying fashion at the University of Westminster. I spot him kneeling on the chrome counters, chalking an illustration of Elvis onto a board for an upcoming tribute night, and he's rosy-cheeked as he tells me how the cafe's culture inspires the clothes he designs. "I love it when everyone comes all dressed up for our music nights. It's weird. Like working on the set of Grease or something."
People come from all over to eat at Ace. In one corner, a group are touring from Japan, and Glenn has met visitors from New Guinea in the past. Louis Theroux comes too, "with his hoody up, thinking nobody will spot him," says owner Mark Dinsmore. Transport cafes like this are few and far between these days. Twenty years ago, drivers could easily have hot meal from one of many Little Chefs peppering the UK's motorways. Now an expensive, hastily grabbed M&S salad is more common. But at Ace, you can get a knickerbocker glory for a fiver—and take your time over it. By stopping properly, you get to see it's still the transient nature of roadside cafes that makes them. With everyone coming and going, they're ideal for people-watching.
Mark and his family revived the Ace in 2001. After the cafe closed in 1969, the building was used as a garage for years.
"We started selling burgers from a van on Sundays when the tyre depot was closed," he tells me, finishing a plate of poached eggs on sliced white bread. "We turned one of the back rooms into this Aladdin's cave of old bikes with a honesty teapot, where people could leave 50p and make a cuppa." A slim guy in his 60s, Dinsmore wears a fleece that says "ACE CAFE LONDON" across the front. For a second, he looks wistful, but the plan was always returning the Ace to it's former glory as a sit-down cafe. Back then, the space was split in two. Businessmen dined in the room with gingham tablecloths and folded napkins, while anyone with oil-greased hands was in the cafe next door. They've never taken the food too seriously, though. Linda, who's married to Mark, tells of one chef's "innovations" in the early days. Mo was enthusiastic but occasionally clueless. "He built a knickerbocker glory with Jacob's Cream Crackers, not realising they were different from wafers," she remembers. "We had some real laughs though—apple pies covered in 'custard' that you could cut like an omelette because he'd cooked it in a frying pan."
I'm shovelling congealed cheesy nachos into my mouth, hungrily, and washing them down with Pepsi. When I photograph my plate, it doesn't look great. None of the salty comfort translates—it's just a pile of nachos hidden under blobs of sour cream and salsa. When I ask if they ever photograph the food here, Linda shakes her head in disbelief. Ace sources its cheese and the kippers on the breakfast menu from the Isle of Man, in homage to the island's lack of maximum speed for motorcyclists.
"You can properly rev your motors and go for it," grins Mark, before adding: "It's the food that keeps this place open."
Some people complain about the cost of a cup of tea at Ace, and he looks embarrassed when I ask how much it costs. It's £1. But that's the reality.
"We live in an increasingly capitalist society," Mark says.
Despite these complaints (and their tendency to "moan about the state of the country"), Mark says that bikers are in many ways the perfect customer.
"They come along to enjoy the fellowship and a good scoff of a meal."
But it's the boy racers keeping the Rocker spirit alive—by pissing off their elders.
"They come and buy one small bowl of chips between all of them," Mark says. "They want to be fast, impress their mates, and the girls, but give it 30 years and they'll turn into the same git that I am! It's a rite of passage." Mark turns a tobacco-packed Rizla in his fingers and looks at me knowingly.
"I've got quite strident views as you've probably gathered," he says. "When you're 50, you think everything was better 40 years ago. When you're 20 you're looking forward to tomorrow and what it might bring …"