74 Lewis’s: independent Moseley brunch

Lewis’s Independent Cafe and Restaurant, 11 St Mary’s Row, Moseley, B13 8HW

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Why go out for breakfast? To socialise? To fuel up before a day out? And sometimes, for the food, which must bring something special to the table when a full English doesn’t actually give a chef much opportunity for creativity. Remember that Heston Blumenthal TV show where he went to Little Chef – this one actually – and revamped all the dishes in haute cuisine style? All the patrons were super grumpy: they just wanted their Olympic breakfast back untouched. A full English is a full English and no messing is needed.

So it speaks very highly of a breakfast when people will queue through the door for over half an hour at 10am on a rainy December morning.

On the crossroads in the centre of Moseley, Lewis’s sits unromantically and unobtrusively in the middle of a row of shops, cars squeezing down the slip road in front, and the A frame squashed up against the frontage. It doesn’t seem to need curb appeal though. Its reputation spread across myriad round-ups of the best breakfast in Birmingham, it was easily the most crowded place we’ve ever had breakfast.  A queue of eight to ten people crammed themselves just inside the door the entire time we were there. Moseley has plenty of other breakfast venues; the queue told us before the food even arrived that we were to get something pretty good.

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Inside, it is a hipster paradise of reused packing crates for storage, menus displayed on brown paper rolls, wide wooden tables, and a cosy, welcoming atmosphere. The staff dashed around like mad things, but seemed a bit overwhelmed; they lost our drinks temporarily, and the wait for the food is long. Lewis’s is a contradictory place, as the slow service makes you think you’d be well off bringing the paper and making a morning of it, yet the queue by the door surely makes you want to whip through your meal and give someone else a turn. I had Moroccan mint tea, which seems to be super on-trend at the moment, and when it finally arrived, it was lovely.

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The other thing that was lovely about Lewis’s was the other patrons, who I don’t think I’ve ever noticed adding to the experience before. When we arrived, a woman volunteered to move to a smaller table so we could have a seat. Later, on our giant table, we were joined by four lovely people who’d left their children at home to go out for a morning catch up. They were so friendly, and great fans of Lewis’s. One of the queue-ers was someone I know from work. To chat to strangers, to see people pass that you know: somehow, Lewis’s makes you feel part of a community in a way you very rarely experience in the heart of a city like Birmingham.

The actual food was heavenly. Eggs Benedict, with perfectly poached eggs, just the right oozy softness, was a treat. The hollandaise was delicious and just the right amount, adding to the tastiness without overwhelming it. This is a bacon eggs Benedict, and the bacon was a crumbly, crunchy, flavoursome delight. Warming and filling and just a treat.

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The full English also came with perfectly poached eggs, and thus Lewis’s position as an excellent place for breakfast was confirmed. No baked beans, which is obviously unusual, but the potato rosti was a very nice addition instead. You can add all kinds of other personal choices, including, here, halloumi. Yum.

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There is only one little toilet in Lewis’s, tucked away out the back. It is significantly less polished than the main floor, just a functional loo, plenty of soap and paper towels. A vintage mirror on a chain and the tin Thomas Crapper sign gesture in the direction of hipsterism. Of course, there is a packing crate on the wall for the loo roll.

In summary:

Price: mid-range – £9.95 for any breakfast, juice, and hot drink

Atmosphere and design: vintagey wooden crates, brown paper and Annie Sloan paint galore

Food: great ingredients, cooked brilliantly; classic breakfast dishes

Toilets: just the one

Enjoyment: fab food, great for people watching, and feeling part of the local community. Just be aware you might have to wait!

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73 Cafe Rouge: worst brunch in Birmingham?

Cafe Rouge, The Bullring, Birmingham City Centre

That question mark in the title in very generous: this is definitely the worst brunch we have ever had in Birmingham. Coming in at number 73, limp when it should be toasty, hard when it should be soft, almost everything about it was a disappointment.

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We only ended up in Cafe Rouge through some misguided imperative to go to a place we hadn’t reviewed before for Saturday breakfast. With limited city centre options with a seat, we headed for shopping central, not even the desolate Cafe Rouge in the Mailbox, but the madly busy Bullring location.

It was insanely busy at 10am on a Saturday morning, crammed to the rafters across two floors with families, couples, groups getting an energy fix before hitting the shops for some Black Friday bargains. Chunky jumpers and bottles of fizz everywhere, while Christmas lights sparkled around: all the signs of forced Christmas merriment. The staff were whirling around getting everyone seated as rapidly as possible, whisking our menus and choices away almost before we were settled on our second floor table.

For £9.95 you can have breakfast, juice and a hot drink. Give them their due, the service at the start was very speedy, and our drinks arrived in a flash. The staff, rushed off their feet, were polite and efficient, whatever other deficiencies presented themselves.

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I almost wish our food had never made it to the table.

I ordered a Croque Madam, which I’ve had a few times in Cafe Rouge as a lunch meal, where it comes with chips. I’ve never seen a sadder-looking plate than this sad breakfast offering. The ingredients were all as you’d get in any Cafe Rouge in the country, but in this case, the toast was completely un-toasted, just limp, soggy warm bread, which meant the best word to describe it was ‘mushy’. Grim.

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The full English barely fared better. The sourdough toast was just warm bread. Had their toaster broken? The tomato looked like it had been cooked hours ago and had since…shrivelled. The poached eggs were completely solid and dry.

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Neither of us finished our meals.

There are two ladies toilets, with the characteristic black and white tiling of Cafe Rouge’s everywhere. There is a french-chic small side unit of drawers, flowers, nice soap. They don’t feel very clean. There are strange scrawl marks in the paint.

It won’t matter that the food is grim and the toilets mucky though. The purpose of this cafe is to get shoppers caloried up and into the Bullring as soon as possible. I’ll offer though, that if that is all you require, Brown’s on Spiceal Street, or Carluccio’s in Grand Central would be much better options.

In summary:

Price: mid-range – £9.95 for any breakfast, juice, and hot drink

Atmosphere and design: French, red and gold, wooden tables, Cafe Rouge branding

Food: badly cooked and bland

Toilets: fine, slightly grubby

Enjoyment: not much.

72 Kanteen: Pop up brunch

Kanteen, The Custard Factory, Gibb Street, Birmingham

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Places come and go in The Custard Factory with reliable rotation; the quirky, and independent, and alternative small businesses of Birmingham find a space here for a while before, seemingly inevitably, disappearing from the brightly coloured buildings and twinkly fairy lights of Gibb Street. It must be hard to get passing trade – it’s a good ten minute walk down a busy road from the Bullring to get here – and maybe as a result, many of the businesses have very visible social media presences. And thus we came across Kanteen, not by passing it (it’s sign is literally in camouflage grass, fading into the background across a green pond), but from pretty continuous mentions from the independent Birmingham Instagram crowd.

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Inside, it is cosy, restrained design throughout, in a very contemporary palette of grey, mustard and green plants. A mix of bar stools, booths and hefty rough wooden tables jumble under Birmingham-themed prints. On a Saturday morning it was quiet but not deserted, and the cool calmness was very welcoming. According to its Facebook, it is a ‘Digebeth Pop Up…We will only have a short life like a butterfly’. They’ve put a lot of effort in if this is true – it feels very polished and well-finished.

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Kanteen is a hyper ethical adventure, promising things like 1 meal provided free to the local community for every meal brought, the most visible manifestation of this ethical drive is that you can’t buy proper coca cola. The menu also skips bog standard classics (no full English here) in favour of much more artistically presented brunch options.

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I opted for a toast with toppings option. I chose goats cheese, chorizo and red peppers on toast, which was pretty cheap at only £5. It looked absolutely beautiful on the plate, and based on the fact that those are 4 of my favourite ingredients in the world (including the toast), it was very hard not to like.

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In contrast, the poached eggs with merenguez sausage option came in for a bit of a pasting. To be 100% fair to Kanteen, this is largely because a person who doesn’t like kale and isn’t bothered by herb gremolata probably shouldn’t order ‘Merenguez sausage in a spicy tomato sauce with curly kale and herb gremolata’. However, that aside, the sausage itself-surely the centrepiece -was a bit weird. Now I googled ‘Merenguez’ (spelling copied directly from a photo of the menu) and Google offers only ‘Merguez’ for starters. A Merguez sausage, according to Google, is a red spicy mutton or beef flavoured sausage from North African cuisine, flavoured with cumin, chilli pepper or harissa. I’ve had a Merguez sausage in The Button Factory (click for the review) and it was heavenly. This ‘Merenguez’ sausage was described as ‘bland’ ‘fatty’ and ‘with a weird texture’.  It did look stunning on the plate though.

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Finally, it has 2 unisex toilet cubicles, which are very drab and lack any kind of joy. There are three sanitary bins for 2 loos though, one under the dryer outside the cubicles, so any ladies on their periods are well catered for. Over-catered if anything! The stylish touches of the main restaurant do not apply here.

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After breakfast, of course you then have The Custard Factory to browse and explore. It seems like there is a bit of a renovation going on at the moment, with new venues promising to open soon, but currently, even with the best will in the world, there actually isn’t that much else to do. Clink (craft beer) and Chitty’s Cakes (cake and coffee) are usually preferred choices, but having just gorged on breakfast at 11am, not really time or space. There is a lovely jewellery shop, a few places to buy art or big prints (including the Birmingham ones finished in Kanteen), the graffiti shop next door: not much for browsing. It’s really more of a pass through place at the moment. Passing through for Kanteen was lovely though, and would definitely trek all the way down there again.

In summary:

Price: pretty cheap! – £4.95 for the goats cheese toast, £6.45 for the poached eggs and Mergenuez sausage with extra toast

Atmosphere and design: grey and mustard, chevrons, Birmingham-themed prints

Food: stunning to look at, interesting alternatives to the classic English, choose with care

Toilets: unisex cubicles

Enjoyment: a lovely calm, welcoming place to while away the morning, but you do have to commit to a bit of a walk or drive to get there

71 Lunchi: overshadowed brunch

Lunchi, The Big Peg, Warstone Lane, Jewellery Quarter

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Lunchi is sat bang in the centre of the row of shops in the bottom of the Big Peg, the ship-like white block that dominates the centre of the Jewellery Quarter. It looks out over the smartly revamped central square, with wide terraced wooden seating before it, and sparkly lights across it by night.  Facing it, you can see what is surely Lunchi’s biggest problem: its next door neighbour, the Urban Coffee juggernaut, with its hipster-friendly aesthetic and Birmingham-dominating delicious breakfasts.

It must be a bit of a brutal business face off, but Lunchi is doing its best to put up a fight. The service bar is laden with massive, delicious cakes, which we were assured were handmade on the day. The service was exceptionally friendly and welcoming. Unfortunately, other things are less successful. The design is a heavy black/red/white and chrome theme which is simple but feels a bit dated. It is inescapably slightly dark in the seating area, which is behind the service area; the light from the floor to ceiling windows at the front is blocked, as is access to the view over the JQ centre.

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Chalkboards advertise a range of classic and more hipster breakfast options, including  symbolic avocado, but the actual full English is more greasy spoon than anything else. It was not a particularly nice sausage.

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I ordered an egg and sausage sandwich, which came on jolly red paper. Perfectly cooked, not fancy,  exactly what you’d expect in a low-key cafe setting.

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The toilet is a single unisex one, with this hilarious graphic on the door:

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Just an ordinary loo inside, where you can relieve your leg-crossing needs.

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In all, Lunchi was a very friendly place to have breakfast, with decent food without being anything special. The cakes looked great. But overwhelmingly Urban Coffee has the edge here: the food is better, and the space feels trendier and more buzzy. It makes me cross to admit it, because Lunchi feels like a genuinely local business, and thus I want it to succeed, but it just lacks any of the lovely features that make you return somewhere again and again.

In summary:

Price: cheap eats

Atmosphere and design: black, white, chrome, red, dark

Food: greasy spoon breakfasts (but they do have great-looking homemade cakes)

Toilets: just the one, unisex

Enjoyment: friendly welcome, but a bit of a dark and joyless experience

70 Boston Tea Party, Edgbaston: someplace nice brunch

Boston Tea Party, 30 Harborne Road, B15 3AA

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Edgbaston is currently experiencing a mini-explosion of new high-end shops and restaurants. Everything is super fancy, taking its lead from Michelin-starred Simpsons which has been there for ages, and spreading through The High Field for one of the nicest gastro pubs around, Oka (for Sam Cam adjacent home decor), and even The Physician, a Wetherspoons-esque pub pretending to be something better.

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A new Boston Tea Party has joined the mix; its pretentiousness instantly established by a website which lists it as ‘Edgbaston’ rather than ‘Birmingham’, as if to disassociate it from Birmingham’s less expensive connections. Inside, the intense industrial design overload of the ‘Birmingham’ branch has been toned down in favour of homelike (if your home is features in a magazine) wallpapers, muted green and cream colour schemes on perfect plaster, and endless pineapple detailing. Very on trend.

It was surprisingly full on a drizzly September morning, with a steady stream of couples, families, pushchairs dashing off the pavement to escape the weather. Inside, it is a warren of smaller rooms, nooks and crannies, a sort of covered atrium room at the back…we sat in a small room with a view of the street. With 4 tables, privacy was off the menu: we might as well have been eating at the same table as the insufferable woman next to us lecturing her brunch partner on her tedious business practices, constantly complaining of the (imaginary) drafts, and moaning about her eggs (dining partner: “why did you order them if you don’t like them?”).

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Tea comes with a timer, and an enormous mug which is satisfyingly exactly calibrated to take the entire contents of the teapot and not a drop more.  Timers for English breakfast tea are ridiculous, purely symbolic of the pretensions of the cafe in question rather than creating a better cup of tea. The coca cola, which came in a glass bottle, appeared to be off, as you can see in the side by side pic below.

The eggs Benedict was delicious. The eggs were possibly very slightly underdone, with some soft whites as well as runny yolk, but the ham is really thick and flavoursome, a real best in Birmingham. Sorry, best in Edgbaston. The toast is sourdough (not a muffin), but the sourdough toast here is divine; we had extra on the side it is so  good. The best bit about the whole dish was the hollandaise, which was just the perfect amount, not overwhelming the delicious ham or swamping the toast at all. Heavenly.

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The toast with the full English was similarly tasty, but the real highlight of this dish is the scrambled eggs: so fluffy, and light as cotton wool.

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The toilets are upstairs (there is downstairs one for access), and have Belfast sinks and exposed pipes for the taps – probably the most industrial chic touch in this whole place. Only one cubicle had toilet paper though, an industrial age touch you could do without.

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In summary:

Price: £8.15 for a West Country Breakfast (£10.75 if you want ‘The Boss, supersizing on all ingredients), £7.75 eggs Benedict

Atmosphere and design: contemporary Ideal Home styling, with geometric print wallpapers, and on trend styling: the gilded pineapple is the dominant symbol of this branch of BTP

Food: absolutely delicious, particularly the ham, scrambled eggs, and sourdough toast. So well cooked, beautifully presented, and just excellent

Toilets: upstairs, industrial taps, out of loo roll

Enjoyment: high for people watching, for delicious food, but don’t sit in the front room if you are looking for privacy

Websitehttp://www.bostonteaparty.co.uk/our_cafes/edgbaston.php 

66 Bella Italia: a brush with the silver screen brunch

Bella Italia, New Street, Birmingham City Centre

Despite having some very picturesque parts, Birmingham remains a tried and tested location for directors looking to create a grim and gritty vibe. Just recently, Spielberg himself was in town, using Livery Street and Lionel Street to represent his vision of the dystopian hell that the future has become in Ready Player One. And this summer, I watched Season 1 of Line of Duty on Netflix, revelling in Birmingham location spotting in the bleak and amoral world of the anti-corruption squad.

When in the opening scenes of season 1 the characters Tony Gates and Jackie Laverty go on an adulterous date for breakfast in the New Street branch of Bella Italia, inadvertently triggering the events of the whole season, the next brunch spot up for review was set…

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Bella Italia itself has had a bit of a rebrand outside since Line of Duty was filmed. The retro brown stripes have gone, replaced with a nice bright blue, although the roped-off seating area remains – and it is still flanked by Superdrug and Boots, of which you can catch glimpses on screen.  As you can see, when we were there, the police were encamped outside, helpfully further evoking the vibe of the show.

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Inside, it is a horribly overbearing mishmash of Italian posters and dark dark wood. There were quite a few people enjoying breakfast, including several stag dos, but we were all seated close to the windows (just where Jackie and Tony sat). I think this is because it is so dark in the inner recesses that you would be unable to see what you were eating. The over-reliance on Italian posters to tell you you are in an Italian restaurant has not changed since Line of Duty was filmed:

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We did not get a free breakfast as they do in Line of Duty, but we did have a buy 1 get 1 free voucher from the website. We did not gallantly rush from our table to stop a thug beating up a woman though, thus earning a freebie, so I will count the half discount as a point that remains in  Bella Italia’s favour: even if you aren’t acting the hero, it remains cheap.

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In Line of Duty, Tony makes a terrible joke about a bacon bap, but I couldn’t bring myself to be that loyal to recreating the show: I had a sausage and egg ‘Puccia roll’ which was lightly toasted and perfectly tasty. Our waitress – who was very attentive and friendly –  added some black pepper to it from a comedy pepper grinder that was nearly as tall as me. Strangely, when I ordered, she asked if I wanted a fried or scrambled egg: is a scrambled egg bap something people actually eat? Sounds messy to me.

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The full English was lined up on the plate in an unusually ordered fashion, as if surrounded by an invisible plastic tray dividers. There was nothing special about it. If you are on New Street and want a standard,  greasy spoon standard breakfast, fairly cheap, nothing special about it, passing up the  local independent cafes for a chain, then probably this is an fine choice. But that isn’t a massively convincing reason to go. It’s fun to recreate a scene from a TV show, but…don’t got to Bella Italia for breakfast. There are even better Italian chain breakfasts within a 3 minute walk in Carluccio’s.

Tiled toilets were fine, with a baby change facility in the main women’s toilets, and loo roll and soap all present. More Italian collage on display over the baby change.

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Generally though, the vibe was a bit grim. I’m including a picture of the chair I sat on which was just uncomfortable. In York’s, some of the seats are literal plank benches and they are more comfy than this tiny hard chair. And the floor was grubby. You’d think if you are going to sit all your customers in the one part of the venue with natural light, you would mop that bit of floor. But no.

At least when we left we were reminded we were not actually in the fictional world of Line of Duty and thus could just walk home without having to fight some crime, get sucked into a crazy web of intrigue and corruption, and finally, in despair [spoiler removed].

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In summary:

Price: £5.95 for a normal sized full English, £4.99 for a sausage and egg Puccia roll (buy 1 get one free voucher from the website meant we only paid for the full English)

Atmosphere and design: ItalianItalianItalianItalianItalian and so so dark

Food: completely standard English breakfast food

Toilets: slightly cramped, but clean

Enjoyment: probably highest if you on on a Line of Duty themed visit

Website: https://www.bellaitalia.co.uk/italian-restaurant/birmingham/new-street

65 Monty’s deli sandwich bar: office lunch brunch

Monty’s Deli Sandwich Bar, 4 Colmore Row,  B3 2QDIMG_20170602_143446_932

How you have lunch says a lot about the place you work. Once, on a rare training day, my boss and I had lunch in Strada, surrounded by office types for whom this seemed routine. I – on the other hand – was like an overexcited child playing at being grown up. The fun of leaving work and sitting in a restaurant for your lunch! Not having to survive on a cheese sandwich at your desk, or a bag of hula hoops snaffled from the snack drawer! Just sitting there, two adults, paying attention to our meal, and having a rest and refresh…It seemed another world.

Monty’s is snuggled just through an office building opposite Snow Hill Station. It isn’t a place many casual Birmingham visitors would find, but it is super convenient for it’s main business: serving the refuelling needs of the office workers that surround it. People come here for the group preorder, or just to pick up a quick lunch, queuing out of the door and down the street as I passed at lunchtime. Drawn in by its apparent popularity, we returned at a quieter time for breakfast.

Inside, you order at the bar, hot food down one wall, and an extensive sandwich and salad bar down the other. The service was very quick and friendly; scribbling our names and orders onto paper bags to pass back into the kitchen, the lady working the till blasted through the small queue super fast.IMG_20170602_143322_979

It is possible to sit in to eat your food, at a limited row of bar stools with single high tables fixed to the wall down one side. We grabbed a wooden-topped bar stool each, emblazoned with some Shakespearean inspiration, and prepared to tuck in. The decor has some lovely touches like this.

 

It’s greasy spoon food, quickly and perfectly cooked and wrapped up in Monty’s paper. My sausage and egg sandwich was great, hot and tasty. Condiments come as part of the ordering process, so make sure you order at the bar, then just open the wrappings and get stuck in.IMG_20170602_143251_175

The full English comes in a tray for easy transportation, and again, exactly fits the bill if you’re looking for a fry up before work: cheap food, plenty of it, thoroughly cooked. Toast came in its own paper bag on the side, which is a very sensible plan to stop it getting all covered in beans. The sausages come pre-sliced in half, which is something I associate with my grandmother, so always find vaguely comforting. IMG_20170602_143230_141

By its nature as a sandwich bar, Monty’s doesn’t have toilets, but for most clientele I imagine you are only popping out of the office for a moment, so can use the facilities back there.

In summary:

Price:  cheap eats –£10 exactly for a full English, cup of tea, coke, and a sausage and egg sandwich.

Atmosphere and design: functional and fresh, clear signage, and a classy take on a wooden-topped bar stool

Food: plentiful, greasy spoon style breakfast food, with a huge other range of lunch options as well

Toilets: use your own

Enjoyment: friendly staff, not a great place if you’re hoping to sit down and chat over breakfast with friends, but if you’re in a grab and go mood, I don’t think you can do better