The Independent London Newspaper


NOSH AND KNOWLEDGE: The lore, language and robust diets of our black cab drivers

Main Image: 
New Oak Café’s owner John Anderson

New Oak Café’s owner John Anderson

Published: 6 December, 2012

RECEIVED wisdom has it that if a person wishes to eat well in a city, he or she should eat where the cab drivers eat. Those who follow this rule in London may find themselves behind a car wash near Paddington Station, staring at a large and unsightly cabin.

This is the New Oak Café, one of only two late-night eateries catering specifically for the black cab trade (the other is south of the river Thames, in Southwark).

It is a 96-seat, no-frills operation – harsh strip lighting, football on the television, some pictures of New York, three fruit machines and a few
DayGlo plastic flowers – but one central to many of London’s 22,000 cabbies.

Although cabbies work alone, they tend to feed in packs: the “day men” tuck into dinner while the “night men” polish off breakfast. Either meal might be followed by a nap in the cab outside.

The typical diet of a British cabbie will be a surprise to no one, although it might be a shock to the body that abides by it: variations on the fry-up theme, chips galore, spag bol and prodigious quantities of tea. (The New Oak, which opened this summer, currently serves a selection of cold dishes while it waits for its hot food licence to be approved.)

What makes the New Oak a completely unique eating experience, however, are the particular social codes and pockets of language its diners uphold.
First and foremost of the house rules: No “miniscab” drivers are allowed to eat on the premises.

“I’m open to minicabs for takeaway. I’d have uproar if they were sitting down,” explained John Anderson, the cabbie turned “guv’nor” of the establishment. “I accept chauffeurs. They’re different, but unfortunately I have to draw a line when it comes to minicabs. There’s a war going on. And there’s been a war since 1954, when they came out.”

Mr Anderson (dark suit, mobile phone headset, gold rings on seven of his fingers) has been feeding his fellow drivers for 30 years.

His first business was one of the tiny cabman’s shelters, or “green huts”, which were established by the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1875.

He believes cabbies’ eating habits are the same as they ever were. But others say tastes are changing with the times.

“You have your old fat boy who eats a full fry-up every day, and then you get the younger guys that will eat a Pret salad and go to the gym,” says Dominic Shannon, a former boxer and cabbie of 14 years.

“There’s stuff in the trade papers now advertising fitness classes and Krav Maga for cabbies. You’re seeing it on the ranks – big blokes getting out of their cabs and stretching.”

Apart from the unanimous hatred of minicabs, other codes of the black cab driver are disputed.

Seniority (how many years you’ve been driving a Hackney carriage) is widely respected, though some exploit it to jump the queues at the “feeding troughs” (taxi ranks) or to “broom off” (pass on) undesirable fares (drunks, “wrong ’uns”, people that live in south London).

Drivers who have recently passed The Knowledge – “butterboys”, as they are called, because they are “but a boy” – are sometimes called upon to buy teas for everyone in the café.

Places like the New Oak do not last long. Its predecessor – a similar cabin set-up behind King’s Cross – closed down this summer to make way for redevelopment. Before that it was the Royal Oak Café, which shut because of the Crossrail project.

Property developers have already submitted plans for the site on which the New Oak now stands.

Within four years, it will be gone.

But as long as there are black cabs in London there will always be somewhere like it: a hidden-away place of robust food and tribal values, where “minicabs” and “butterboys” fear to tread.


Nosh and knowledge

I see the myths of the past have raised their head again.
Although the author SIMON WROE believes he has got all the facts right by stumbling across the New Oak, he hasn't checked out the true facts. Firstly there is only one true night shelter left in the taxi trade and that is the new Kings Cross Taxi Centre in Bookers cash and carry parking lot, Camley Street. Both Great Southwark street and The New Oak close around 11pm although the oak does stay open till 3am on Tuesday night/ Sunday morning.

Where on earth did he get the information that older drivers are allowed to jump queues and broom jobs?

Again a tongue in cheek reference to people in south London not getting a proper service! This is just not true.

Well Simon, I've been driving a cab for 39 years and have never pushed in or been given preference by younger drivers. I don't broom jobs on ranks to younger drivers and I'm more than happy to go to any part on London, north or south.
The myth about butter boys doing all the crap work is just that, a myth.
The myth about drivers not going south is just that, a myth.

It's a shame because you did get quite a bit correct, but this is spoiled by the bits you never researched properly.

Simon if you have any questions and would like some truthful answers about our wonderful trade, you only have to contact me using my blogs email address. Top right column.

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