Reviews #1: Specials - the best London cafes

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Snack Bar: behind Claridges


These are the best of the classic cafes left standing largely unharmed in London. Note that most keep odd early closing times at the weekends - and often during the week for that matter. Few open more than a couple of hours on Saturdays. In the long-term all are under threat. Catch 'em now whilst they're still standing.

Click here > for an at-a-glance Top Ten cafe guide.
Click here > for Central London establishments.
Click here > for the abbreviated No. 8 bus London Caff Tour.

Also, here's the full unexpurgated Central London Cafe Tour that was put together for Architecture Week 17 - 26 June 2005...

lliE. Pellicci (Bethnal Green Rd E2)


Ye must be born again! Fire-damaged as of June 2000 - now triumphantly re-opened and thriving - Pellicci's astonishing interior marquetry dates from the early twentieth century. Though the cafe was partially re-modelled in the late 40s the authoritative steel logo over the front door and the classic custard-colour Vitrolite exterior panels signal a potent authenticity. The Krays were regulars - often castigating customers for bad language; Berkoff's portrait still adorns the walls; Patsy Palmer lived nearby; Iain Sinclair namechecks the place in 'Lights Out...' and Groove Armada are longtime devotees. This is simply one of the greatest (and friendliest) places in all of London and boasts possibly the best personal service of any eaterie in Britain. Pellicci's HAS - repeat HAS - to be seen to be believed. Do whatever it takes to tube it to Bethnal Green and hike up the high street to visit this masterpiece. And, as of Feb 2005, it's been Grade II listed by English Heritage, one of only two twentieth century cafes to be protected (the other one is Alfredo's - now S&M Restaurant.)

lllNew Piccadilly (Denman St W1)


The last of the big hitters left in Soho and possibly the largest 'spoon' left in London. Wall-to-wall yellow Formica and lots of brilliant red booth seating make this one of Europe's finest eateries. Quite apart from the breathtakingly well preserved interior, the New Piccadilly menu itself is a collectors item design classic. A cathederal amongst caffs and as such be advised that this is a place of reverence and high sanctimony, So leave your combats, style-wanker trainers and TinTin fraggle crop at the door. We'll have no trouble here! Read the 'Independent on Sunday' interview with proprietor Lorenzo Marioni.

More > New Piccadilly Photo Special

lllAlfredo's aka S & M Cafe (4-8 Essex Rd N1)


Alfredo's (pre S&M, with original signage) N1

Long thought closed for good but saved by the S& M [Sausage & Mash] Restaurant chain as of Dec 2002. Alfredo's was founded and run by the DeRitus family who came to Britain at the turn of the century. After eighty years in the business, Vincent DeRitus looked forward to his son taking over, "but he wasn't cut out for the catering game." Parts of Quadrophenia and Mojo were filmed here, first-circle London ganglander Frank Fraser was practically part of the furniture and actor Steven Berkoff was a regular throughout his hungry years. The Deco styling dates from 1920 and is awesome: gleaming steel; lashings of blue table formica; amazing wall panels and vitrolite ceilings throughout. (Excellent mug souvenirs too). Exquisitely greasy and hugely popular, from Feb 2000, Alfredo's was boarded up but Islington council were adamant the exterior and interior were protected as fine examples of 1940s architecture (the upper apartments are also protected as an 18th C. terrace). The S & M restoration is a real indigenous attempt to face-off the US cafe chains: all the Formica tables, Thonet chairs, Deco trim and vitrolite panels remain fully intact. The company promises to revive more classic caffs in the future. Kevin Finch, head of S & M restaurants, says: "With the new caffs I'm doing, the building, the fabric is as vital as the food. Proper tables, authentic light fittings... that's so important to me. We want that real atmosphere; I want to replicate what Alfredo's was, what it meant. It's got to be done with integrity and it's got to be done with heart." (Listed Grade II building)

Gambardella [Vanbrugh Park SE3]
Along with L Rodi E17 (below) and The Koffi Pot, Welling (also below), The Gambardella (Vanbrugh Park, E3) is the most exciting classic cafe find this year. Run by the same family right from its opening day over a half-century ago, this is possibly the most hidden cafe gem in all of London ­ lost in the Blackheath Standard area at the top of Greenwich Park. (The only way to get there is via a circuitous bus route from Greenwich town centre). The building dates from the 1930s, but the unique moulded plywood revolving chairs were installed during the 1960s. The two sections of the cafe form an entire history of the genre: the front room is early 20th Century deco with amazing flesh-coloured Vitrolite and chrome; the back section is mid-century Festival of Britain in red and black Formica. And don't miss the silver deco clock, the tile-floor parlour, the 100 year old fridge and the nifty old wall heaters. A masterpiece.

L. Rodi [Blackhorse Lane E17] NEW
L. Rodi's is a splendid old caff that's been with the same family since 1925. The frontage is somewhat altered (thought the excellent 'L. Rodi Light Refreshment' sign is untouched) but the front room is a fantasy of marble-mint Formica set under sparkling Vitrolite; chrome edged tables are packed tight opposite an original counter with a giant old English Electric fridge at the back; the upper walls are lined with authentic 1950s tobacco posters. The back room is a veritable caff museum: lined with emerald and off-white tiles; Victorian marble tables; a working grandfather clock that still chimes the hours; black-lacquer bentwood coathangers; framed menus from the past and beaten-silver signs embossed with the words 'Teas' and 'Suppers'. The place has barely changed in a century. Overwhelming. Emotional. Essential.

Koffi Pot [Welling High St, Welling] NEW
Originally owned by an Italian family called the Feraras, this much-loved local dates from the 1930s and retains an unusual and extensive collection of coffee pots ­ all sizes, shapes and colours ­ displayed on a long shelf over the counter. The outside sign boasts 'Builders Breakfasts Horlicks and Bovril'. The large interior is a fantasia of lustrous frosted lemon and lime opaque glass, set off with original ceiling fans, neon strip lights and beautiful old fashioned stick-on-letter wall menus. Truly, a Valhalla in Vitrolite for classic cafes fans. (In 2001, director Mike Leigh shot a couple of scenes at the Koffi Pot for his film All or Nothing.)

Alpino [Chapel Market N1]
Only the stylish serif typeface above the door indicates anything special but special the Alpino most certainly is. Founded in 1959 this monument has held on to every ounce of its character. The interior is a wonderland of museum-quality tables and shiny, worn wooden booth seating. On top of this, the fluted beige wall panels, teak-veneer Formica, glossed-over 1950s anaglypta, red lino floor tiles, period wall heaters, glorious lamp fittings, coat-hangers and teak detailing make this a no holds barred Top Ten destination. Jeez, even the Alpino's plum-pattern plate n' saucer sets are ceramic perfection. Just ducky! Simon Cheung, the Alpino's owner, is a caff-master of the old school; a gent who really knows how to handle the old place to best effect. NB: For the flaneurs out there, this is a favoured Iain Sinclair stop-off on his Regent Canal walks.

  Copper Grill [Eldon St EC2]RIP Jun 04

Magnificent upper & basement interior with splendid murals downstairs. Rosewood tables and seats and original milk bar-style serving counters. Good lights... Set behind Liverpool St station. Great outside sign. Lapidus beanpole rails also! The large amount of wood booth seating is inspirational and the scale somewhere near the best of the US diners like Dennys. The downstairs is even larger with chalet-style wall texturing and a weird geometric counter. Murals adorn the back alcove booths in the style of an alpine lodge! An absolute classic that must not be missed.

More > interview with Mr Burkeman.

Don's [Lower Clapton Road E5] NEW
Almost as turbid as the Clapton Ponds it stands next to, with its creaky double-fronted exterior and unremitting drab decor, this caff seems to be perpetually on its last legs. Orders are written in felt-tip pen on an ancient piece of plastic on the counter which is then wiped clean. The cafe's run by the eponymous Don and his ancient Italian siblings (all of whom came from Lucca in the 1930s) and sits just around the corner from where Harold Pinter was born. Fans rave about the "wonderful physical space and decor, fine food and music... oh, the music!" Don's chirpy whistling (and the accompanying polka music) is a unique selling point along with the big fat caff cat: "Places like Don's offer something you can't get in your quotidian Costa Coffee: character. Okay, the food isn't up to the ludicrously high standard of Stateside equivalents like Tom's Restaurant in Brooklyn, but it's run by two tiny little fellas, both about 75 years old, who make great tea to a non-stop soundtrack of 1940s French accordion music. There's something terribly classy about it, even taking into account the nicotine-stained walls, ratty furniture and faintly grubby atmosphere."

Piccolo [Eldon St EC2]RIP July 2004
Almost next door to the Copper Grill. This narrow cafe has an unusual basement that has classic chalet-style decor throughout. Both upstairs and downstairs sections retain the original Swiss light fittings and snow cave wall texturing.The Piccolo and Copper Grill are like brother and sister. Voyage out to the rear of Liverpool St station and investigate them both.

Brunchies [Gt Titchfield St W1] RIP Jun 2002
An oasis of leatherette sanity in an injection moulded wasteland! Good booths & lighting & sign. In a weird enclave - the garment district north of Oxford St. A great stomping ground for odd shops and lots of 50s buildings in the favoured municipal style. Particularly welcome also in that most of the surrounding eateries are so hideous.

Sandwich Bar [Brooks Mews W1]

Possibly London's greatest 'plain-style' hidden gem. Utterly forgotten. Amazing silver metal sign and door handle magically attached to a tiny frontage down a tradesmans entry. Superb location behind Claridges in a brilliant lost mews which unfortunately appears to be ripe for redevelopment shortly. Brilliant green leatherette seats. Worn Formica tables. Good walls. Always seats available - interesting mix of clientele: cabbies & Claridges doormen. Good service. The very essence of a fully functioning plain-cafe. Amazing locale. Also worth checking for the huge array of Victorian electrics packed into the bathroom like a Heath Robinson time bomb. Very functional and very friendly. A model of British utility. More > Brooks Mews Special

Chez Monique [Gate St]RIP 2002
Excellent orange Formica Bedazzled int. with great booths in a hidden backstreet behind Holborn station near the Soane Museum. A great little hide-away street and always excellent service. Sister cafe 'Bernis' around the corner now sadly defunct. A fine family establishment set at odd angles nestling in a superb little enclave. As of summer 2002, massacred internally, only the nice yellow sign survives.

River Cafe [Opp. Putney Bridge Tube SW6]
This place has it all. Superb vitrolite [glassy] ceiling, magnificent blue-tile work & murals, excellent wood seats and full-on formica tables, large busy counter, eccentric locals and a splendid frontage with Gill-face sign. Not to mention a dream-team Italian family giving the best service this side of Pelliccis. One drawback: the milling BMG Records staff from head-office nearby & in-tow pop stars - Dave Stewart is said to be a regular. If you head there before 1.00pm lunchtime you will be assured a superb seat, decent meal and a handy base for a river visit to the church that featured hauntingly in 'The Omen.'

Remos [Weighhouse St W1] RIP [2002]
V. near 'Dante.' Good tables and seats and tea machine. w/ "cavern" section. Slight chalet-style - textured walls and cave-like hideaway booths. Cherishable.

Sea Breeze [239 High St E17]RIP 2003
Well worth traveling for and quite near to the tube end of this market st. Superb interior with black and brown booths. Brilliant lights and loads of powder blue formica on the walls. Cut glass front door too. This fish an chip joint is a must-see.


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