169 Hemingford Road, London N1 1DA
Summary: Easily one of my favourite brunch places in London. The only gripe is the ridiculously long queues at the weekend, but it might just be worth it for the excellent and interesting food, with equally great coffee to boot. This is food made with love, care and attention. And those pancakes…some of the best in London! Verdict: 9.5/10
Value for money: 9/10
Practical details: no reservations taken at the weekend, so be prepared to wait for about an hour. They only serve a brunch menu at the weekend, but on weekdays serve a breakfast and lunch menu with several overlapping items from the weekend brunch menu. Big bonus is that you can make a reservation on weekdays, so if you can go then, I’d strongly recommend it. Note that they’re closed on Mondays!
I first discovered Sunday on a Saturday. Crawling over the speed bumps typical of a London residential street, I was on my way to Iraqi chef and pal Philip Juma’s brunch pop-up at The Cuckoo when I noticed a gaggle of people hanging around outside a cosy-looking little shop. I did my research, and realised I’d passed Sunday. I was curious.
I returned the following Sunday, thinking I might have a short wait for a table for one (normally a big advantage of solo dining – you can be accommodated in all sorts of spaces ahead of groups of 2+). I had the foresight to take a magazine, and just as well: I waited for an hour before I was seated. I could have simmered with irritation, but as it happens I didn’t mind so much. Standing there, surrounded by rather nice houses in a pleasant residential neighbourhood, sandwiched in the queue by Beautiful People chatting away, I was transported to lower Manhattan: I could have been waiting outside the Clinton Street Baking Co. for a table. It had the same convivial feel of being in a nice place, with a hint of easy cool, waiting for what you expect will be good food. Except there you can now get a bit of help there with NoWait – the New Yorkers know their shit when it comes to waiting. London is still to catch up. Sunday do not take reservations over the weekend, so you have no choice but to stand in line.
The place is small, but pleasant and cosy: it is the local neighbourhood cafe you want to drop into any time. The decor is homely: slightly wonky wooden tables sized for 2, except for a couple of long benches to accommodate larger groups, with a bar by the window with stools so you can get cosy with your dining neighbour. There are also a couple of tables outside. The place seats about 25-30 diners, which also explains the wait for tables. There is no music, so you can talk to your companion or read your book in peace. The staff were attentive with the queue, periodically coming out to update us and bring in people when they could. It looked like the staff couldn’t move fast enough to keep the diners inside fed, and the would-be diners outside seated.
Finally seated, I looked at the menu, written on a single A4 sheet tucked into a clipboard. I was drawn to a number of things: I liked the sound of several dishes, the proposed combination of ingredients and flavours. It was a menu with some of the standard fare (I suppose you can’t escape avocado on toast wherever you go) alongside more interesting, unusual dishes.
I should say now that I have been to Sunday several times, and have tried a number of their dishes. For my first visit, I chose to be initiated with the Buttermilk pancakes and the brioche French toast – pancakes are a personal Litmus test. I was deliberating between the two, and asked the waitress for advice (I do this a lot, with mixed results). She advised me that I could get a half portion of each, which cost slightly more than a single portion of one, but was worth it if I wanted to try both. I did. The pancakes come with bacon, but if you want they can swap it out for something else: if you ask nicely they might even give you an egg as a substitute, although the standard substitute is caramelised banana.
I ordered a large latte (£3) while I waited, which came in a rather comforting bowl I held cupped in my hands as I sipped. The coffee was exceptional: mild, mellow, smooth, and requiring only a hint of sugar to sweeten (there is demerara on all the tables). I had to ask the staff what coffee they used, and they told me it was Caravan’s Daily blend – and my favourite coffee was found.
My pancakes and French toast arrived…and my French toast was good but not wow. It was a little dry, which is easy to do with French toast unless you soak it in a custard sauce and douse it in sauce, US-style.
But my pancakes were another story. They were amazing: light, fluffy, circles of perfection. They arrive at the table topped with fresh berry compote, and a solid disc of butter studded with tiny gems of sticky, chewy honeycomb, which you have no choice but to allow to melt all over your stack before you devour it. The maple syrup is already poured over it, but you can for it on the side instead if you prefer.
I’ve had the pancakes with both egg and with the banana instead of bacon (of course I’ve had it more than once), and they’re great with either, it’s up to you whether you want it with a savoury side or sweet. If you’re coming here for the first time, I definitely recommend trying the pancakes, whether as a main or to share as a brunch dessert. These are also part of their all-day breakfast weekday menu, so you can enjoy them without having to queue – score.
I loved the food and atmosphere so much I came back the following week, and then brought my brother the week after that (who then came again with a friend of his…), and then with my best friend. It has basically become my Place To Take People I Like. You’ll know you’re special to me if I invite you here. It gave me the opportunity to try more of the menu, as follows…
The courgette fritters with halloumi, avocado, poached egg, yoghurt and dukkah (£11) were an incredible collage of flavours, textures and temperatures, all as perfectly balanced as the tower in which they arrived at my table.
With each bite, I was excavating another layer of flavour, another texture, another combination of cool yoghurt with crunchy warm fritter, salty cheese with creamy avocado. It was delicious.
I am reliably told that the smoked haddock rarebit with poached egg, avocado and mushrooms (as a sub for the bacon) was surprisingly tasty – because you never know with smoked fish.
My friend ordered the free range buttermilk fried chicken with waffles, maple syrup and coleslaw, and her verdict was that the chicken was not flavoursome enough – which, I think, is a perennial problem with most buttermilk fried chicken.
The corn fritters with kiln smoked salmon, avocado, tomato and creme fraÎche was nice, but not incredible. The flavours were too bland for me, and it all kind of melted together with no standout element.
What would be an excellent thing to do if you eat there is to get a savoury dish each – I loved the courgette fritters, but there are only a couple of dips in the selection overall, so you can’t really go wrong. Then order a half portion of pancakes each, or one full portion to share. Or maybe you would prefer something from the array of baked goods by the counter and coffee machine at the back, in which case I strongly suggest the banana bread, which comes warm with cinnamon butter on the side for you to smear liberally all over it. It’s actually amazing: you can tell yourself it’s virtuous because it has fruit in it, but the chef tells me it’s made with every decadent thing you can imagine – which makes it better than good.
Or, if you’re like me, you can get everything, because you waited long enough for that table…
Overall…I love this place. I love its easy feel, that it’s quietly cool without being too hip, that the atmosphere inside is homely and welcoming, and at every table you look at people just seem to be happy and having a good time over good food. If you’re just passing, then at least stop for a coffee and some banana bread. If you stay, dive into the menu, and you will leave full for about £15. The service is as good as it can be in a place so busy and tight (it is a bit of a squeeze): the staff are accommodating and friendly. If you can, go during the week when you can book or at least have a civilised waiting time. Because nobody should have to wait for food that good.