The urban exploration of brunch

To qualify yourself as an explorer, you used to have to discover a continent or at least some precipiced waterfall somewhere at the edge of a vast plain. These days it’s easy; no 3 month sail around the world to traverse some uncharted land. Just whip out Google and search for “10 best cold brew brunch places in London”, onto the tube, 90min queue with some double-denim clad hipsters, a few mouthfuls of this-month’s-flavour-of-the-month-stuffed French toast and an almond latte and you’re an “urban explorer”. Oozing with metropolitan-cultured refineness, ready to patronise with your explorer’s tale of “this great independent brunch place” you discovered.

Everyone likes to indulge in a bit of one-up-manship from time to time, but it’s at least somewhat entertaining when the level of up-manship is high enough. “We just got back from Laos. So much culture and on one of the days John almost got bitten by a rat snake!” - clearly one-up seeking egotists, but at least they made an effort and I do want to hear about John’s (probably not so near) scrape with a viper. Contrast that with the yawnful drudgery of the urban explorers’ dinner party conversation. “Martha and I discovered this delightful little cafe that roast their own coffee beans last weekend.” Except you, Martha and some other “explorers” on tripadvisor, no one cares.

Hackney lattes and hackneyed sayings like “A man who’s bored of London, is bored of life!”, seem enough to lower the budding explorers’ horizons to somewhere just beyond zone 2. To the enlightened, it’s clear that the world beyond London has nothing worthy of exploration. It’s the hinterland that conveniently supplies the adjectives of coffee shop menu embellishments. The abstract source of the Ecuadorian coffee beans and Italian mozzarella, but not somewhere you’d bother going.

But anyway, here I am. Not out of choice, it’s Jane’s birthday and Jane is an “explorer”. Sunday brunch at an oversubscribed establishment. There’s a queue. A big one!
“Did you book a table Jane?”
“No, they don’t take bookings.”
Of course they don’t. No self respecting brunch place worthy of a mention in a top 10 list takes bookings these days. You can’t just let anyone in. The explorer clique is the reserve of those with spare time. Things without a queue just aren’t worth discovering. It’s a hard to understand contradiction: Jane insists she discovered this place, but no doubt she had to wait behind the other 50 people who “discovered” it that day.

Once we’re in, the whole experience is weirdly mechanical yet broken. The cruel, cooler-than-thou chic of the concrete and chipboard decor and iPad armed servers, contrast the comically inefficient and unslick service. You sit, you read the menu. Five choices. Decision made. You wait. You wait some more, trying to catch the eye of a member of staff. These people are professionals at avoiding eye contact; a level of skill the rest of us can only yearn for when the clipboard-clutching social enterprise volunteer approaches us at the tube entrance. Eventually we’re dealt with. He asks if we’ve chosen yet. Is this a joke? He’s left us sat here for 30mins and there are only five choices. He doesn’t seem like someone who tells jokes; he’s a twenty something with a non-ironic pencil moustache and it’s not even movember. Our order is acknowledged with a few disdainful taps on the iPad and a drawn out “Okay”. The food comes surprisingly quickly; pre-prepared, fast food restaurant quickly! And, perhaps predictably, the food is not worth the time invested in this expedition. In an oddly self-righteous manner, the waiter serves me an oddly self-perspiring piece of French toast that sits on the cold plate wallowing its own tepid diaphoresis. It makes a disgusting hue at the watery, sweat–maple syrup interface. It’s the stunningly beige, American-fast-food-chain style of french toast; an epitome of a prepare yesterday, reheat today kitchen philosophy.

I have to say it, I have a certain respect for this place. They’ve made a fast-food restaurant (that isn’t even fast), social media’d the hell out of it and now they have a queue of desperate customers winding around the corner every weekend. It’s a transaction that everyone (except the collateral hanger-oners like me) seem happy with. For only a few pounds and a couple of hours of your time, they provide you with a point of exploration, something to big-up and brag about discovering at your next dinner appointment. Most of your friends will be put off by the queue so they’ll never discover your lies about how amazing and “melt in the mouth” the food was, and if they do, you can just say “Oh yeah, it’s become kind of mainstream recently. We went there before it was discovered.” And divert attention to the new ramen-burger-”where they make their own noodles” place you just discovered instead.

Maybe I do like urban explorers really. One of my favorite restaurants is the european-style tapas place around the corner. And since they don’t have an instagram account or a mention in any top 10 list, the explorers stay away, they take bookings and there is blissfully no queue. Snobby people used to say that the great thing about Sainsbury’s was that it kept the riff-raff out of Waitrose, maybe this is the real purpose of top 10 lists and urban exploration. The rest of us can just get on with enjoying the places that have already been discovered as great, like the shameless, unenlightened, beaten-track followers that we are.

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