It’s very important, at Cafe East, that the tables are 50cm by 55. They were made by owners and brothers-in-law, Mustafa Has and Ali Cakan, to keep people close. But every bit of Cafe East is important, from the writing on the windows to the contemporary art on the walls. It’s all meant to be there.
‘Sitting really near to each other is quite common and traditional in the East End, especially in old pie and mash shops,’ says Has, known by everyone as Mus. ‘We do it because it’s the culture, it’s the vibe. You have to share tables – it’s the way it works here. It brings the community together.’
Whether people are old or young, locals or visitors, music legends, builders, yummy mummies or market traders, Cafe East sees them all. But how do Has and Cakan hit the sweet spot between East End nostalgia and avocado on toast? How do they balance caff with coffee bar? We met Has one evening at Cafe East to tell us about the family secret.
Roots in Bow
Has is a true local, having grown up and been to school around the Roman Road. ‘Me and my sister pretty much grew up in the Bromley by Bow Centre, doing the art class, Signs of Life,’ Has says. ‘That took me into my first career path.’
After studying graphic design at Central Saint Martins, Has transferred his knowledge into starting a ‘typical greasy spoon style cafe’ with Cakan in north-west London. ‘I gained a lot of confidence in terms of marketing, and Ali in terms of working in kitchens. But we always knew one thing: we could cook good, honest food. We’re thirsty and hungry and we’re passionate about what we do.’
Once they moved on from their first restaurant, number 426 Roman Road came up for sale. They took on the property 18 months ago, ripped out the interiors out and started designing. ‘I wanted to get it right,’ Has says, ‘I wanted it to remain as a local caff without coming across too trendy or gentrified.’
Designing Cafe East
Cafe East existed in Has’s imagination before it existed on Roman Road – from the plant pots hanging outside to the colour of the brick walls. ‘I was very picky about what it looked like. I’ve always been into wooden shop-fronts, handwritten signs, window graphics, everything handmade. How it would have been in the East End a while ago,’ Has says. ‘I always had that vision for it to be a cute, warm spot.’
As we sit and chat after closing-time, three different groups stick their noses through the door, spying on the menu and asking after smoothies. He wanted Cafe East to look like a caff from the outside – inviting, cosy and non-threatening. It works.
‘The font of the writing is different from the outside than on the inside. From the exterior it can attract traditional customers, it feels cute,’ Has says. ‘But on the inside the feel is more modern.’
For every bit of the cafe that’s old, there’s another bit that’s new. There are the tables (50cm by 55), an exposed brick wall (a nod to hipster-ism), white-washed walls (ready for contemporary art exhibitions), second hand furniture (from the East End), hanging flower baskets (like a London local), waiters’ t-shirts (‘cool and up to date’) and menus (with a modern logo on one side and an old map of Bow on the other).
Then came the hardest part of all: the name. Has remembers: ‘I was thinking about it really hard, and then it just came to me at Ged Palmer’s studio [the sign maker from Hackney Wick] and it just felt right. We’re in the heart of the East, so ‘Cafe East’ just felt honest, original.’
Roman Road community
Like the name, the shopfront and the interior design, Has and Cakan wanted to make their food both authentic and modern. ‘We had to find the impossible balance: the best of both worlds,’ Has says. ‘Our brunch and lunch menus are full of traditional caff food, just done with a twist. You can come and get a jacket potato, you can come and get a fry up or you can get a vegan salad, avocado, sourdough.’
The brothers were determined to stay true to their East End routes and were wary of falling into the ‘hipster caff category’. Has explains: ‘We were never trying to jump on the bandwagon about what else is happening around here, because there’s plenty of that. It was about just being us. A family run business.’ The brother-in-laws are constantly adjusting the menu – a new addition being a halal fry-up.
Cafe East is a walking, talking example of the East End mix. Always busy, always noisy, bustling, close and friendly, customers are made to feel like old friends and, as Has says, ‘everyone gets a bit of a feel’.
Like the people sitting at the 50cm by 55 tables, the art on the walls is always different. Each month the cafe hosts a new local artists’ work – from murals to prints to paintings. ‘East London has been a creative environment for many years,’ Has says. ‘A lot of things have come from here. Being original, local, authentic – that’s where the original cool comes from.’
Has is fiercely loyal to his local friends, because it was their support that helped get the cafe off the ground. The records and CDs he bought as a child in Rhythm Division (the record store on Roman Road that was the heart of East London grime music ) now play through the speakers of the cafe, and the grime artists he grew up with now sit at the tables.
‘The artists have popped in, my friends like Rudimental come here, Jorja Smith, Tinchy Stryder, Wiley, all the local boys, the Roll Deep boys, Ruff Sqwad boys, the Boy Better Know crew, and Ghetts is in everyday – all these artists which represent east London. It almost feels like we’re continuing the Rhythm Division, just in a different way.’
Because the cafe is always so busy, Has rarely has the chance to step out of the kitchen. But walk in on any day and you’ll see it packed with people, elbow-to-elbow with grime artists and hipsters and old docks workers, on tables that are 50cm by 55.
‘It brings the community together – all different backgrounds, races, everyone,’ says Has. ‘On my odd day off when I do drive past or I’m going to my mum’s, it makes me really proud. It’s turned out exactly how I pictured it.’
You can find Cafe East at 426 Roman Rd, London E3 5LU. It is open on weekdays 8am-5pm and weekends 9am-5pm.
If you liked this, why not read about the story behind The Pavilion.