From the Millwall football fans packing out the pie shops in Bermondsey to the Dagenham nans gossiping over plates doused with liquor and pastry, pie and mash has been a no-frills staple of London dining for years.
No matter how many pop-up taco vans or fusion restaurants the city's dining scene throws out, it seems there's no beating the buttery crust, rich beef filling, and creamy mash combination—especially when drowned in a fluorescent green parsley liquor.
One particular London pie shop surpasses all rivals, and that's F. Cooke in Hoxton. As part of its long-standing old age pensioner deal, the shop offers a massive plate of grub for a £1.
"We've done the deal for roughly ten years," owner Joseph Cooke tells me. "We started it off at 90p and then we eventually put it up to £1 a good few years ago, and all the customers went bonkers."
A rotund fella with kind blue eyes, Cooke is the lively anchorman holding the pie shop together. He comes from one of the oldest pie and mash families in London, with his great grandfather opening London's first shop in 1862.
"It runs in the family," he explains. "My grandfather, my grandmother's family, and my grandfather's brother went into the business. So did my dad and my dad's two first cousins."
For one gold nugget at F. Cooke, pensioners receive pie, ample mash, and a liberal ladle of liquor.
As prices for almost everything else in East London continue to skyrocket, such senior citizen meal deals remain few and far between.
"The whole point is to get them out the house." Cooke explains, greeting customers like long lost relatives and offering cups of "Rosy Lee." "It's a two-fold thing: good value for money and to keep them knocking around. A lot of them come in especially for the deal because their travel is free."
Cooke explains that a lot of regulars hear about the F. Cooke deal via word of mouth.
"We used to have a guy come all the way from Peckham in South East London three or four days a week on the bus. Funnily enough, he hasn't been in for ages. I think he's probably dead," Cooke says, his voice wavering slightly. "But loads of them still come in a few days a week. The majority are from Hoxton and we have some come in here in their 90s."
Two years off her 90th birthday, Winifred Ryan has been frequenting F. Cooke for the best part of her life.
"I've been coming here since I was a kid. My mum used to take us up here when it was over the other side," she tells me. "It's a lot dearer but the food hasn't changed. Their deal for pensioners is great. There's a real sense of community here, more so than other places."
Having lived in East London her entire life, Ryan has seen the area change before her eyes.
"I've been in my flat on Kingsland Road 61 years," she says. "My son was five when we moved in there and now he's an old aged pensioner. It used to be rough but they never interfered with me."
Brian is another regular who can't get enough.
"I've been coming here for about a year now. It's a giveaway, isn't it? Where else can you get a double pie and mash and tea for £2.50? But I just give the waitress a fiver and she keeps the £2.40 for herself and it stops her swearing," he quips. "Mind you, I also buy her a bar of chocolate every morning. She's a really lovely girl."
Eating at F. Cooke has also helped Brian to meet new people.
"I was coming in here every day because I love pie and mash that much," he laughs. "Now I only come in a couple of times a week. I usually come in at about 12 and read the paper."
An old East Ender, Brian lives just half a mile away. It turns out that he frequented Cooke in his younger days, too.
"I used to manage a bakery nearby and come in here years ago," he tells me.
It's this kind of lengthy history that makes London's pie and mash shops so special. Never referred to as "restaurants," the shops are as ingrained in East End culture as the pearly kings and queens.
Londoners began filling pies with the eels caught from the River Thames in the 19th century but it wasn't until Victorian times that dedicated shops began to open. To this day, the majority of pie and mash shops are concentrated in East London, South East London, Essex, and nearby seaside towns.
The shops have their own traditions, too. As ill-informed patrons readily discover, the biggest faux pas of all is to use a knife.
"We don't have knives. Just a spoon and fork," says Cooke. "But you get the odd wanker asking for a knife—about as many as people who ask for gravy. We say don't even mention the 'G word' in here. Having gravy is like serving fish with boiled potatoes, not chips. The traditional meal is pie and mash and liquor."
Every one of these elements is also homemade.
"The one thing we don't do from scratch is our cherry pie filling because we don't have a cherry tree in the garden," laughs Cooke. "We have incredibly good gear. When I say we have good, natural products, it's not bollocks. It's being absolutely hand-on-your-heart genuine."
Cooke often spends the morning sourcing meat at Smithfield Market.
"I got suet for the crust and hind quart flanks for the filling. Boned it all out and then ran it through the machine. We grind all our own meat. For the mash, we use Maris Piper potatoes," he explains, careful not to give away the finer details of his age-old family recipes. "Then fresh parsley for the liquor."
But what about the jellied eels? The dying dish establishments like F. Cooke were once best known for.
"They're a very small part of the turnover compared to what they used to be years ago—I think they're quite expensive," explains Cooke. "Oh, but they are an aphrodisiac."
Cooke still makes jellied eels on the premises however, boiling them in parsley juice and letting them set naturally with no gelatin. Cooke tells me they are best eaten with homemade chili vinegar made fresh from Scotch bonnets.
As I talk with Cooke, it's impossible not to notice the eclectic mix of diners his shop attracts. From indigenous OAPs to Japanese tourists and Essex-born stockbrokers, it seems everyone is welcome. While the tables are packed today, Cooke explains that some days can be quiet.
"When the city went bust in 2008 and 100,000 people lost their jobs, our delivery went down a lot and it hasn't gone back," he says. "You've got to remember, a lot of bankers are barrel boys and East End boys."
Nevertheless, F. Cooke remains a bastion of the Hoxton community.
"When the old pie shop finished in the late 70s, apparently they asked the local community what shops they wanted," says Cooke. "They were unanimous—they wanted their pie shop back."
In an area of London that can feel like it's being eaten alive by flaxseed porridge cafes and sterile Pret-A-Mangers, places like F. Cooke are what we all need. After all, on a grey day, a plate of pie and mash is nigh on impossible to beat.
For more old-school London dining, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.