North London Food & Culture

Why We Love: #1, Mario’s Cafe

A new series of love letters to local stalwarts begins with Kelly Street's famous diminutive caff

'The noise of the city prevails: the roar of the high street, the whir of the coffee machine.' Photo: Dan Hall
‘The noise of the city prevails: the roar of the high street, the whir of the coffee machine.’ Photo: Dan Hall

Sometimes I think we don’t bang on about Mario’s Cafe enough. Sure, over the years, we’ve roped Saint Etienne founder Bob Stanley into writing the story behind their eponymous 1992 song; and more recently enthused madly about Ronald Denning’s documentary.

And yet still. Still it sits, on the sweep of Kelly Street, underrated in its way, a “secret” frequented by the faithful, calm compared to the crazed morning madness of say, nearby rivals the Fields Beneath, or Two Doors Down.

So yes, it’s one of the friendliest cafes in town thanks, almost entirely, to the fact that affable owner Mario Saggese actually works there daily – and has done for over two decades. There’s never even the slightest whiff of a sullen tattooed twentysomething. Mario knows how you take your coffee, and it’s consistently pleasing each time.

Serving up good banter with his beans: Mario Sagesse
Serving up good banter with his beans: Mario Saggese. Photo: SE

But it’s during sleepy late August that Mario’s Cafe really comes into its own. I’m addicted to a morning brew outside, the perfect sunny spot, en route to our office. There are just two tables, a Formica 1950s one, often a little coffee-stained; and a brown mosaic tiled number, the type you’d discover at the bottom of an overgrown garden in Hampstead – in your dreams.


And dreaming is what Mario’s and, of course, Kelly Street itself, is all about. Grab a seat, and take a long, leisurely look around you: there’s the expressionist gothicism of St Silas Church across Kentish Town Road, and the sun-lit Victorian splendour of the Abbey Tavern opposite.

A regular visitor to Mario's. Photo: Dan Hall
A regular visitor to Mario’s. Photo: Dan Hall

The star attraction is, of course, the row of famous terraced cottages painted violet, lemon, taupe, pink. It’s the kind of street where palm trees sway in front gardens, trees remain in blossom all year round, and a slinky black cat is forever prowling around a lamp post.

Sipping an americano – smooth, strong and with a good crema – the noise of the city prevails: the roar of the high street, the whir of the coffee machine, gruff shouts of a gang of delivery men unloading. And at regular intervals, motorbikes swoosh past with their waspish hum.

Sure, there are many talented folk in the area pushing back boundaries with their filters, small-batch brews and roasteries. And we praise them for that. But it’s worth remembering that Mario’s has been open for 25 years for a reason.

And it’s a simple one: you really do want to keep going back to dream on its sun-trap pavement.

Open daily (closed Sundays) 8am – 4pm. Coffee is about £1.50-£2. They also make delicious breakfasts and lunches. Find Mario’s Café at 6 Kelly Street NW1

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