The breakfast club

A fry-up first-thing is a great British institution. But it's on the decline as habits on how and where we take breakfast change radically. Frederic Manby reports

Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day but increasingly it is a moveable – or forgettable – feast.

It can be easier to eat breakfast after you have got to work if it means beating the morning rush hour by those vital minutes. Or, the plan may be to get the children safely to school then relax, perhaps with like-minded parents, at a cheerful caf, where someone else does the cooking for a change.

Fruit, meat, cereal: what's best? Tea or coffee? Water or freshly squeezed juice? Prune or pomegranate? A compound creamy smoothie for detoxing or giving an energy boost?

The Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA) started up Farmhouse Breakfast Week eight years ago to promote British-grown breakfast food and this year's event begins next weekend. But breakfast-eaters have dropped by a third and of those who can be bothered, only 13 per cent choose a cooked breakfast.

Yet England's gift to the world at dawn is bacon and eggs. The eggs must be free-range and the bacon, whether streaky or not, should cook without exuding gloopy residues, a tell-tale that it has been artificially enhanced between pig and table. Sausages: get the best you can afford, with a traceable producer named on the label.

We tried several "traditional" fry-ups, with surprising results. A city slickers' food palace was comprehensively out-cooked by, among others, a bikers' food stop. At the end of the day, so to speak, breakfast is a matter of personal choice. As a counterpoint we also tried something new to most readers, a delicious day-starter from Pakistan.

Booths Supermarket Caf,

Leeds Road, Ilkley.

Tel 01943 605000. Open every day from 8am to 11.30am for breakfast (caf closes 7pm). On Sunday, breakfast and other food is served from 10am to 3pm.

The Lancashire-based family owned supermarket has cafs in some of its stores, including Ilkley, Ulverston and Windermere. Ilkley's Booths is edge of town centre on the Otley approach. Clientle is more discerning than the major chains. The signature country breakfast (served until 2.30 every day) comprises a fried egg, hash browns, Booths' traditional home cured bacon, Westmorland sausage, Andrew Ireland's black pudding, baked beans, grilled tomato and mushrooms and there is a vegetarian alternative (with two slices of toast). Each costs 4.49. Toast with the meat breakfast is an extra 75p. Drinks are modestly priced, with a pot of tea for 95p and a cup or mug of coffee at 1.25. This really is a belt-buster of a breakfast, particularly the vegetarian menu, thanks to the thick sliced toast. No complaints about quality, either. It is precise cooking to a good standard. Alternatives include a fruit breakfast (cafetire, Frobishers orange juice, fresh fruit salad and brand-named low fat yoghurt) at 3.49; or coffee, juice, pastries and jams at 3.99. The counter also serves sandwiches, and some of the deli items from the store, including cakes and savouries. Regard it as a quicker, cheaper alternative to the pukka posher Bettys in the town centre without the queues and easier parking. Reading matter: local and national papers.

Star rating:

Food HHHH

Ambience: HHH

Value: HHHH

Verdict: Spot on.

The Sweet Centre, 106 Lumb

Lane, Bradford.

Tel 01274 725454. Open every day from 8am to 10pm.

The Chana Aloo is served until noon. The Sweet Centre is an institution. It has been serving a distinctive breakfast meal for decades, originally for the Asians on night shifts at the flourishing textile mills. It opened in 1964 as a caf and friendship centre for the Pakistani and Kashmiri workers, usually single men who had left their families back home. The Sweet Centre was their place to chat and relax. Today, with the mills dark, demolished or converted to posh flats, the Sweet Centre serves a more affluent Asian set.

Its famous breakfast dish, using a recipe unchanged for

40-odd years, is a simple but intriguing spicy stew of chana aloo (chick peas, potatoes) served in plastic bowls, with deep fried puri. It is eaten at the counter or at tables, with a spoon or with fingers and the puri.

The ingredients include chilli, coriander, ginger and tomato and it is the proportions that give it the unique punch. The manager, Gulbahar, who opened the Shiraz in Oak Lane in 1981, says only two people know the exact combination of spices.

I have been eating it since the 1970s and it really does taste just the same. The current "modern" caf on the junction with Bowland Street lacks the atmosphere of the long room at the original Sweet Centre a few doors up Lumb Lane. (This is still open as a restaurant but no longer serves the breakfast dish). Pricing used to be fixed on how many puris you ordered. Today, for a very reasonable 1.50 you get the chana and aloo, two puris, a glass of water and a wad of paper tissues for the oily puris. The complementary breakfast dish is a dry semolina porridge. Try the sugary halwa milk cakes, jelabi, gulab jaman and so on. Also served: seekh kebab and meat samosas at 65p a shot.

Everything is made in-house and its cakes were presented to the Queen when she visited Doncaster. Her portrait (as a young monarch) has always hung in the Sweet Centre premises, along with Jinnah, the first governor general of Pakistan, and more recently, Princess Diana.

Star rating:

Food: HHHHH

Ambience: HHHH

Value: HHHHH

Verdict: Perfect start if you like it hot.

Penny Garth Caf, Main Street, Hawes,

North Yorkshire.

Open weekdays from 9.30am to 3pm (9am to 4pm at weekends. Tel: 01969 667066.

For much of the time this market place caf looks like a bikers' caff. The e has even dropped off the gable end sign to read Caf. Road and trail riders enjoy the hearty, energy-rich fry-ups, so do walkers and cyclists. The counter and ticket system runs smoothly and you know your food is fresh from the stove. Menus are chalked bright and clear. The mugs plug the bikers' first aid fund run by the Lancashire Ambulance Service. We are in serious riding country here, and spills do happen.

Outdoor types need food and hot drinks in winter and there is a happy thrum as they talk bikes, hikes or just eat.

The caf interior is "used" but clean, despite the muddy riders. Many prefer the outside tables, even in winter. Choose from tea and toast to soup, sandwiches and the all-day breakfast. At 4.95 this brings beans, fried egg, a grilled tomato, slice of spicy black pudding, several rashers of good bacon, a sausage, three or four large mushrooms and two rounds of toast and a drink.

No complaints about quantity or quality. It is home-cooked and just about perfectly so and nicely presented – apart from poorly drained mushrooms, which were too oily. Reading material: Magazines.

Star rating

Food: HHHH

Ambience: HHH

Value: HHHH

Verdict: Suits its customers. Hard to fault because it meets its ambitions spot-on.

Restaurant, Bar and Grill, the Old Post Office, City Square, Leeds.

Breakfast served 7am-11.30am Mon-Fri, and 9am-1pm at weekends. Tel 0113 244 9625.

The stylish interior and relaxed feel of this city centre restaurant ought to make for a chilled-out start to the day. What a pity that the team at Restaurant, Bar and Grill don't seem to take as much care with breakfast as they do with the lunches and dinners that make it so popular.

The menu offers smoothies and fashionable juice combos, pastries, waffles, granary and sourdough toast. You can have cereal, fruit and yoghurt, and seven egg dishes, including omelettes and eggs benedict. Sausages from Gloucester Old Spot and sweet maple dry cured bacon all make choosing rather difficult. I selected Greek yoghurt with berry compote, followed by the English breakfast. My friend went for porridge with honey, plus Spanish omelette. The food arrived promptly – a bonus if breakfast here is a pre-work affair (there were a few business-suited groups). The yoghurt and fruit provided exactly the right balance of creaminess and tartness. The porridge was on the solid side, with the oatmeal slightly undercooked. Where to start with English breakfast? On the face of it, here was a meal to see me through to tea-time, a hefty plateful of two rashers of bacon, two Gloucester Old Spot sausages, scrambled egg, tomatoes, black pudding, mushrooms and granary toast.

However, everything but the toast and mushrooms was unappetising and carelessly cooked. The bacon was indigestibly tough, as though grilled at high speed and left to fester; the egg was rubbery and unseasoned; the sausages were charred on one side (and when I pointed this out, the waitress did not even apologise, much less offer replacements); the black pudding was dry and the tomatoes had collapsed in a puddle. The Spanish omelette was overcooked, but tasty nonetheless.

A croissant arrived, but not as we know it. It was not even a distant cousin of the buttery, flaky, French-style pastry we have taken to our hearts. It was solid and doughy, and burned down one side. The price was eventually knocked off the bill.

No knives or spoons were offered with the preserves or sauces, so a greasy knife had to be dipped in the marmalade. There's no finesse about this. We enjoyed our tea and coffee, and felt rather neglected once we'd eaten. Another coffee might have been nice, but it wasn't offered.

All in all, a disappointing experience – and overpriced. The English breakfast was 8.95, and the total bill for two was 24.60, including a pomegranate juice and an extra round of toast.

Star Rating

Food:HH

Ambience: HHHH

Value: HH

Verdict: Big disappointment.

Sheena Hastings

The Wicker Caf, 47 Wicker,

Sheffield.

Tel 0114 272 7064. Monday to Saturday 7.30am to 2pm.

No greasy spoons here. In a city sometimes offering Full Monty breakfasts rather than Full English ones, the Wicker Caf is a bit different.

Not that it looks particularly special from outside. Sandwiched between a curry house and a Caribbean restaurant on a rundown main road out of the city centre, it has plastic garden chairs, tabloids on the tables, and standard-issue sauce bottles (plus Henderson's Relish, a cultish Sheffield-made Worcester-like sauce).

As well as fry-ups, though, the menu runs to home-made quiches, coleslaw and carrot cake. Rob and Sarah Armytage, the amiable owners, used to run a country club, and it shows.

They do an all-day breakfast (3.25) and a mega-breakfast (4.50), but also bespoke vegetarian breakfasts to order. Mine was superb: poached egg, veggie sausage, beans, fresh mushrooms, hash browns, two slices of toast and a mug of tea (with refill). It took just seven minutes to arrive and was satisfying, light and grease-free: 3 all-in.

The regulars are a friendly lot – workmen, office workers and university staff. "I only serve stuff I'd eat myself," says Rob. You have to admire his taste.

Star rating

Food HHHHH

Ambience HHH

Value HHHHH

Verdict: Faultless.

Stephen McClarence

South Cliff Caf, South Cliff Road, Southside, Bridlington.

Open daily from 6am; closed Mondays until February 27.

There are dozens of cafs in Bridlington catering for the ebb and flow of visitors during the holiday season and for those who go to the resort for days out all the year round. So how do you go about choosing one for a good breakfast when there seems to be a caf every few yards?

The best bet is to ask a local, and they will more than likely recommend the South Cliff, on what is known in Bridlington as the harbour top. It's actually next to a pay and display car park by the side of the harbour and from the windows you can just about see the fishing boats bobbing about in the harbour. They start serving breakfast at 6am here. It's popular with fishing parties and others who have to be up and about early in the morning.

It's a traditional-style caf and offers a choice of three breakfasts: regular; Gavin's (the owner's) extra large; and a light breakfast. The regular consists of two large rashers of bacon, a fried egg, two slices of fried bread, baked beans and a sausage plus bread and butter, and a mug of coffee with free re-fills and it costs 4.25.

The caf is spotlessly clean, the staff are immaculately turned out in yellow sweatshirts and the breakfast was spot on. The larger version (two of everything and three rashers of bacon) would have defeated us, but some of the regulars looked as though they could tackle this without too much difficulty – the party of strapping bikers, perhaps, who were just leaving as we arrived.

There are all the other usual items on the menu, too, from sandwiches through to giant Yorkshires, steak and kidney pie with chips or mashed potatoes and peas (4.50) and a special of the day such as roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and vegetables followed by a pudding for 5.95.

Star rating:

Food: HHHHH

Ambience: HHHH

Value:HHHHH

Verdict: Enjoy the sea view, too.