It takes a special kind of woman to sit entirely alone, in a WIMPY, at 2.15 on a Wednesday afternoon, eating a large brownie sundae. It takes a very certain person to sit, in the corner of a WIMPY on Streatham High Road, at 11.30 AM on that same Wednesday, eating an entire hash brown breakfast while Cindy Lauper blasts from the stereo behind her. It takes a particular sort of gal to hunker down over a cheese-doused Bender in a Bun, alone, staring at the women's toilets of the WIMPY on Southwark Park Road, listening to Magic FM.
I am that woman.
Due to an unlikely mix of bravado, nostalgia, and wild disregard for the state of my arteries, I decided to spend a recent Wednesday eating in three of the last WIMPYs in London.
You know WIMPY. Of course you do. Like that grey-chinned uncle who bought all his clothes in a job lot at C&A in 1992 so he could dedicate more time to his filing cabinets, the British restaurant chain has always been there, in the background. You don't visit it much, any more. You don't talk about it to your friends. You don't send it Christmas cards. But you know it's there. Unchanged. Resolute. Eternal.
And yet, through acquisition by various international fast food behemoths, the rising popularity of other red-and-yellow burger chains, changing metropolitan tastes, and straight forward neglect, WIMPY seems to disappearing from the nation's capital. There simply aren't as many as there used to be.
So, armed only with a bicycle, a £20 note, and a stomach that doesn't know what's good for it, I was determined to visit them three of them. To pay homage while I still can.
Which is how I found myself sitting across a formica-topped table from a woman with a plum-coloured mullet, eating a plate of hash browns, fried egg, mushrooms, grilled tomato, and baked beans as she danced in her seat to Queen's "Somebody to Love." As I buttered my single slice of toast, I watched a couple discuss their Christmas shopping while surrounded by plastic carrier bags. As the waitress in a black baseball cap and name badge brought my heart-topped latte, I watched a girl in a fur-trimmed parka eat an entire ice cream sundae at 11.29 in the morning.
The breakfast was brilliant, of course. The mushrooms were freshly cooked—I know, because I'd watched a woman walk through the restaurant carrying a large plastic crate of them a few minutes earlier. The egg was soft but not snot-like and the hash browns were so deeply fried they left a lipid map of continents, islands, and lakes across my bean-smeared plate. I was happy.
As the sun burst through the clouds over KFC, Mecca Bingo, and New Look, the strains of "She's An Easy Lover" came on the radio. There were black-and-white photos of old Streatham dating from 1945 on every wall. A child in a tiara was wheeled up to the counter and sung a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday" to by the owner. The chairs were decorated with a Laura Ashley-like print that I'm pretty sure my grandmother used to have as curtains.
It felt like I had slipped through into an alternative, timeless universe where strangers chatted over egg and chips, mothers were taken out for a cup of tea by their weakly moustached sons, and you could eat an entire fry-up for less than a fiver.
The immortal, ageless nature of WIMPY is—along with its enduring love of frankfurters—what makes it so special. It is woven into the very fabric of its napkins.
Which was why I was so pleased, just an hour later, to be sitting under a photo of an unrecognisable football team simply called "The Lions" in the WIMPY on Southwark Park Road. There was a balloon stand in one corner with a few gently inflated treats for the kids. There were posters for something called "Whipped Temptations" behind a pillar. There are three generations of "No Smoking" signs on the walls. There is a Nice Cold, Ice Cold, Fresh Milk machine behind the counter, the like of which I haven't seen since I was 12.
This could be any time, in any city, anywhere in Britain since 1963. And, as the waiter slides up to my table, I take a deep breath and order the most famous thing on the WIMPY menu: the Bender in a Bun.
I went to a wedding once where the groom announced that he and his new wife fell in love over a Bender in a Bun, after driving all night around the A-roads that skirt South London. It's that kind of dish. A sliced sausage the consistency of a colon and shape of a telephone cord on a hamster shaving of possibly-cooked onions, topped with a slice of custard-coloured cheese, the whole thing is held together within a soft, white bap.
It tasted almost completely of nothing. It was wonderful.
I look up from my feast to see a man in an Ellesse tracksuit chewing through a cheese burger. We catch eyes, Coolio's "Gangster's Paradise" comes on the radio, and he gives me a quick wink before turning back to his table to roll a cigarette.
Not quite ready to get on my bike after the gut-busting Bender, I order a coffee and look through the menu. The dishes read like a haiku: sausage, egg, and chips, Hawaiian toastie, open mushroom burger, toffee tray bake "served warm." The chef and waiter chat and laugh together across a huge stack of red paper napkins emblazoned with the WIMPY logo, beside a fridge that's acting as shelf for a set of flavoured coffee syrups. A man suddenly appears from behind the pillar—he must have been eating there all alone, all along—and strolls up to the counter. I follow him up to pay and think what a wonderful place this would be for a final, breaking-up date.
The final stop on my WIMPY odyssey is, without doubt, the best. The Watney Market branch is busier than a night bus and cosier than my old Mr Men sleeping bag. There are two girls in cardigans eating that ice cream-topped doughnut known, somewhat faecally, as "The Brown Derby." There's a woman in the corner sipping a Pepsi and reading a magazine. A poster advertising the Bender as a breakfast item is tacked to the wall. In fact, there are posters so entirely covering the window that the entire place has that warm, halogen glow of artificial light.
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Now, cycling here I was, genuinely, very nearly sick over the side of Tower Bridge. I'd eaten a full fry-up, a Bender in a Bun, chips, two cups of coffee, and a lemonade in the space of two hours. My stomach is—according to the midwife friend who I send a photo to—at the 19-week pregnancy stage, all thanks to frankfurters and fizzy drinks.
"So," I think, "what better time to order a chocolate brownie sundae? What better way to slide into a serious heart condition?"
As he takes my order to the kitchen, the waiter silently places a copy of the Daily Mail on my table. While I'd rather read my own obituary, it is a very kind act: to give someone who is clearly eating alone something to read while she waits. All the staff have been lovely, in fact. Friendly, helpful, non-judgemental: even to a woman in a pair of sports leggings eating a cacophony of saturated fats on her own, at midday, on a drab and grey-clouded Wednesday.
The sundae is amazing. It comes covered in something described on the menu as "nibbled nuts," which gives the topping a nice second-hand feel. The brownie chunks are harder than biscuits, but that's fine. As the ice cream melts over the edge of my glass bowl, I start to tot up what I've eaten using the menu's handy calorie counter. I've eaten 1,954 Kcals (whatever the hell they are) in just over three hours. I feel a strange but not wholly unpleasant mix of bloated, sleepy, and proud.
Scraping the last of the chocolate sauce off the bottom of my dish, I look over at the string of Christmas cards hanging over the deep fat fryer, at the "Enjoy Every Moment" slogan translated into Arabic, at the enormous cans of baked beans stacked in the corridor behind the kitchen, and the strings of tinsel above my head.
"I could stay here," I think. I could just stay here all day. After all, time doesn't move in a WIMPY.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2016.