Saturday, 30 January 2010

Sergio's Continental Bar & Diner, Croydon, Surrey

From the top: my large tea and a Sergio's laminated menu; check out that amazing apple pie with ice cream (it's a Brake Bros pie and it's the best); and then (above) my 147 with extra onions. Normally I have a sausage and onion bap but they'd run out of baps so I opted for ciabatta instead. From now I might order the ciabatta .

You want a cult caff? Then look no further than Sergio's Continental Bar & Diner. I love that name. We call it Sergio's and that's not only because it's easier to say than Sergio's Continental Bar & Diner, but also because Sergio exists. This is a family business run by Sergio and his wife Pat. Pat does the chat, Sergio produces the food on the menu. It's that simple.

Sergio's is to be found in St George's Walk, no more than three minutes' walk from the lobby of St George's House, headquarters in the UK of Nestlé. It is a caff from the seventies and it hasn't changed much since then. I remember going there for a plate of lasagne back in the days when my wife was my girlfriend in the early eighties. In many ways, this is the caff that time forgot – and thank the Lord for that! Check out the interior decor, it's fantastic.

I started going there on a daily basis back at the beginning of the new millennium. My colleague Geoff Althoff, aka 'the illustrious illustrator', were fed up with Bar Ispani in the nearby Whitgift Centre because it was too expensive and had an identity crisis: was it a caff or a restaurant? It was certainly charging restaurant prices so we shipped out and started to hang out at Sergio's.

It didn't take Pat long to get to know our needs: a sausage in a bap with extra onions was one regular order from me and then there were the baked potatoes with tuna and onion and let's not forget the apple pie with either ice cream or custard. I used to have the latter but only if the custard was made by Pat or the Portugese lady that helped out behind the counter. For some reason they made better custard than Sergio and don't forget, we're talking Ambrosia Devon Custard – nothing better. The ice cream was good too, especially if the pie was hot as the contrast between the hot pie and the cold ice cream was just amazing.

It wasn't long before Sergio's became a regular haunt every day. Two large teas, sometimes three, number 147 on bap (that's the sausage and onion sandwich with extra onions) and then the apple pie with either custard or ice cream.

When the job went down, we still met there for a while and even now, even if we don't go in for months, Pat still remembers us. She has become our friend and that is what caffs are all about.

Whenever I walk in there, Pat just brings me over a cup of tea. She knows my order. If I asked for my usual, she'd bring me a 147 on a bap with extra onions.

Sergio's has round Formica tables with wall-mounted seating on the left hand side, the service counter on the right and over at the back in the right hand corner, the 'confessional'. That's what we call the bench seating next to the end of the counter where a brown mesh wall separates the customers from the counter staff; it looks like a confessional, hence the name.

My colleagues and I, my wife, my son, my daughter, we all love Sergio's and I would suggest that if you want to experience this caff, waste no time as it looks as if it might not be there for much longer. Why? Well, not because it's losing money to restaurant chains. Oh no! Sergio's is a millon times better than Costa or Caffé Nero or Starbucks or anywhere else in Croydon for that matter.

No, the reason is all to do with St George's Walk and the fact that nobody seems to know what's going to happen to it. At one stage it was going to be knocked down but I'm not sure what's happened to that plan. Either way, the initial proposal meant that leases were not being renewed, that sort of thing, so Pat and Sergio were just waiting and wondering and as other retailers in St George's Walk move on (Millets has gone and so have many other shops and other caffs too) Sergio's is still there.

Today, there's a few weird shops in the Walk and a couple of caffs, an optician's, a relatively new fresh bread shop, and, well, it's all a bit strange as there are plenty of boarded up shops too. There are caffs at both ends of the Walk. At the High Street end it used to be Panino's, but that's now called something else. Either way it's not the same as Sergio's, not as comfortable.

I was in Sergio's last week and the first thing Pat did was bring over my tea. I ordered 147 with extra onions AND I had the apple pie with ice cream. I ordered a second cup of tea and the whole lot was just £5.90. You can't beat value like that, can you?

The best thing about Sergio's, of course, is the warmth. Not only the warmth generated by Pat and Sergio and the friendly atmosphere generally, but the warmth generated by the cosyness of the place and the fact that it's warm and welcoming in the cold weather. It's fine in the hot weather too, probably because the Walk is shaded from the heat (not that in England there is any real heat).

Listen, Sergio's is just the best. It's as good as it gets when it comes to caffs and if you haven't been there, then go there soon because you just never know when it's not going to be there. I know that one day I'm going to head on down to the Walk and find it gone. That will be a sad, sad day.

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