We needed to steel ourselves for the tedious task of buying Mike a new suit. My flatmate James 2 had given us strict instructions, but Mike was completely clueless about what he wanted (because he is a man), and so was I (because I am not a man). We ended up at The Black Penny, the newish Covent Garden coffee shop famous for selling every item for a penny on its opening day.
Sadly, the offer was not to last, but they do still offer a glass of prosecco for a penny with any brunch on weekends, which on Islington’s Upper Street would probably cause some sort of riot.
We were ushered into a bright backroom filled with people enjoying a lazy Saturday afternoon. There was an old couple doing the crossword, and beside us two hipster types pored over a Macbook. The Black Penny was named after the ‘penny universities’ of the 17th and 18th centuries, when a penny would get you a cup of new-fangled coffee and the right to sit and enjoy it for as long as you liked, which meant they soon became hubs for scholars, thinkers and other enlightened types. It’s rather a lovely idea, but alas, we couldn’t sit there all day. (We had that bloody suit to buy.)
The menu features the regular breakfast items, including the obligatory tarted-up Full English. Unusually for a coffee shop, the BP has its own Head Chef, so I wasn’t surprised to see a few dishes on there that set it above your regular brunch stop.
There was a minor scuffle over who would get to order the Crispy Confit Duck, served with sweet potato hash, baby spinach, a poached egg and coriander (£11.50), but in the end I gave in and plumped for the Bubble & Squeak (£9.50), mainly out of curiosity. (It featured quite heavily throughout my childhood via Enid Blyton novels, but I still hadn’t the foggiest what it was.)
It turned out to be an enormous, rough ‘n ready hash brown with fried egg, sausages and a pot of homemade BBQ sauce that frankly makes the guys at HP look like feckless amateurs. Whatever you get, order it as a side. I can’t imagine it doesn’t go with everything.
Mike’s duck was exactly what I’d hoped – buttery, sweet potato hash and a generous shredding of crispy duck, pancake-style.
I also got a side of halloumi (£3.00), just because. It came in big, meaty chunks: puffy, salty cheese streaked with crisp griddle marks.
We went to town on the cakes – sampling the jaw-achingly fudgey Oreo Brownie and a big block of Australian Lamington cake, which is a jam sponge covered in chocolate and rolled in coconut. The thing had some heft to it and is not recommended unless you’re really really hungry (i.e. not when you’ve just had a whole plateful of duck and sweet potato.)
We also asked to try some teeny slivers of the lemon and ginger cakes, which were both obviously made by someone who shares my belief that lemon cake should be so lemony it makes your mouth pucker, and ginger cake so gingery it makes the hairs in your nostrils tingle. The ginger was my favourite; it came topped with a thick slug of salted caramel buttercream, which slightly tempered the fiery sponge beneath it.
Overall, the food was fantastic – on a par with my Islington favourite Sunday. Service was chaotic but kindly; we weren’t rushed at all, but drinks came out slowly and they did serve me the wrong tea. I’ll let them off though, it was a lovely space to linger in.
We left incredibly full – probably more full than is recommended for buying a tailored suit – but never mind. More room to grow into, eh? The Black Penny actually turned out to be a bit of a good luck charm; we found The One within an hour at the nearby Reiss Covent Garden, and were back home opening another bottle of prosecco by teatime. Maybe the old rhyme has a grain of truth in it after all: “Find a penny, pick it up…”
The Black Penny, 34 Great Queen Street, London, WC2B 5AA
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in Islington and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.