The tale of the cafe at Brookfield Mansions

Seen the striking ghost signs just off the Heath at the foot of Highgate West Hill? Course you have…

First Class Tea Rooms
First Class Tea Rooms. All photos: Tom Kihl
There’s been a pleasant little stop for a cuppa at the base of Highgate West Hill for as long as anyone can remember. First Class Tea Rooms, no less. A godsend for those needing to recharge after a strident constitutional across the Heath or bone-rattling tram ride up from the slums of Kentish Town.

These days the café that forms the corner of late 1800’s development Brookfield Mansions houses the successful Mediterranean/Turkish fare of Bistro Laz, but for decades it was a fine example of the Italian greasy spoon, the legendary San Siro Café run by brothers Gino and Tino.

The menu and décor hardly changed from when they took it over in 1972 for the best part of 40 years. of skiving school kids, workmen… and boxers.


Trainer George Francis would often treat the likes of Frank Bruno, John Conteh or Bunny Johnson to a Full English after a gruelling fitness session on a frosty Heath.

A great picture from the Museum of London online archive shows customers in the café’s earlier Lyons tea house incarnation from 1965, juxtaposed with our shot of it at 6pm yesterday. There’s more foliage now, but the frontage remains essentially much the same.

As do the wonderful ghost signs that are still visible and cry out timelessly to all comers. Tempted as we are to ask today’s patrons to quote us for throwing a Kentishtowner staff ‘beanfeast’ (see pic below), we resist in favour of a moment’s contemplation.

This little patch continues to reflect its past as a tram terminus, and as the approach to the first rest stop on the main London to St Albans route before that, even if we’ve lost some former glories like the beautiful Victorian public conveniences that once sat opposite. (All lovingly polished copper piping and intricately glazed tiles, the whole building was razed to the ground in the early 90s.)

Oh, and Brookfield Mansions are mentioned in celebrated former poet laureate Sir John Betjeman’s famous ode to the area, Parliament Hill Fields thus:

Till the tram went over thirty, sighting terminus again,
Past municipal lawn tennis and the bobble hanging plane;
Soft the light surburban evening caught our ashlar-speckled spire,
Eighteen-sixty Early English, as the mighty elms retire
Either side of Brookfield Mansions flashing fine French Window fire.

While today’s C2 ride probably doesn’t quite hold the capacity to stir such emotions, the tree-lined trip to the First Class Tea Rooms – which also marks the most northerly reach of NW5 – retains its quiet poetry.


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  • Sean Yazbeck

    “Enjoyed in a dense fug of frying, toasting and cigarette puffing”. LOL. That is a perfect description of San Siro’s atmosphere. I remember the bacon butties circa 1986 with great fondness.