The Essential Cafe

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Several elements make a classic cafe. A lot is to do with exterior and interior qualities - which must have been left fairly well alone for the last 20/30 years - the rest is to do with atmosphere and location but NOT particularly food.

However sniffily dismissed in their day, cafes retaining any of their original mid-Century detailing - however sparse - now seem like exotic national treasures. A proper classic cafe needs to have been left well alone for the last fifty or so years to facilitate that signature feeling of crushed romance and brief escape which such items supply.

The rules of engagement are:

  • Formica is the cafe covering of choice: panelling is always good, but anything from a distressed woodchip to a worn fake wood lino can be effective.

  • The sight of a fine cafe sign at twenty paces is a pulse racer and no mistake: bold, old fonts are best, preferably slightly dilapidated; but a stalwart Helvetica or Univers job often suffices. Misplaced apostrophes are forgivable; words like Benjy's; Starbucks, Costas, Coffee Republic et al. are not.

  • Chairs should be free-standing variants of Michael Thonet's Vienna Café chair No. 14. They should positively clatter. US diner-style fixed counter stools, leatherette banquette seating or sectioned booths of suitably utilitarian design are all perfectly acceptable. Pre-moulded, bolt-down coloured plastic seating is a blasphemy and an abomination.

  • Tables must be square, or oblong. Formica table tops should feature abstract patterning-or fake wood designs-worn from years of loving mug-nudging.

  • A counter arrangement of a glass/Formica with a smart display of light refreshments is the one true way-accept no other. (A straining silver tea boiler must always be on the boil for good measure.)

  • The ideal crockery set will have been in use for generations: something with a plain 1950s pattern or simple line is good; Pyrex cup n' saucer sets are, of course, top of the wish list.

  • Prime examples of period lighting can always be spotted by their resemblance to the UFOs in The War of the Worlds.

  • The legendary red Drury's 'Good Tea' sign hanging in a cafe window is an especially good omen.

Vital to a classic cafe is the 'third space' factor. This phrase was originated by the marketing teams who put together the post-modern mishmash of the Starbucks coffee chain.

The 'third space' is an area away from the distractions of home and office, somewhere for calculated repose and day dreaming: private yet social; discrete yet visible. Somewhere to pull into away from the crowds and bustle.

The coffee bar of the 50s & 60s drew, as we have seen, on this type of continental ambience but somehow along the line in the grim quagmire of the 70s and 80s most of it was lost in Britain. Only now is the concept coming back into vogue.

It is possible that a return to the correct form and function of the cafe embodied in the classic model may occur. In London the reworking of the vast Point 101 bar at the base of Centrepoint is a case in point. As is the superlative 50s-motorway- caff-meets-LA-Lounge design of the remarkable Stanley bar/restaurant north of Oxford St.

The classic old Soho Italian eateries like Centrale, Pollo, Lorelei, Euro Snack Bar, Sergio's, Bar Italia, Presto, 101, Bar Bruno and the Cappuccetto all remain popular and have steadfastly retained their original 50s decor.

Cafes are for nestling into on a drizzly London morning and watching the world go by. We want these places to be occupied by groups of committed cafe casualties. KFC's or McDonalds' clones are ruled out automatically as are any Aroma-style brasserie wannabees.

We like to hear plenty of hissing steam and feel a solid warmth.

There must be a whiff of the 50s & 60s to the classic cafe. A waft of early 70s is acceptable - as shown in the Wimpy in the opening sequence of 'Bedazzled' - but generally speaking the less red or yellow moulded seating bolted to floors the better.

One sight of this dread arrangement as you approach a likely looking frontage and you know all is lost!

For an at-a-glance guide to the precise requirements necessary to make a Classic Cafe click below.


More > Classic Cafes: The Key Components

Classic cafe chairs

We are particularly impressed by the range of top seating available in the Golden Fish Restaurant on (Mount Pleasant, Farringdon) and also at the Copper Grill in Moorgate (RIP). Both seem to have similar fixtures and fittings in a truly awesome range of rosewood - featuring superb steel-leg detailing on all chairs! Andrew's on Grays Inn Road has a fine room full of plain-style Thonet chairs and a wide selectionof proper cafe tables. Amazing looking benches ca be found at the unfriendly COrner Cafe at West Brompton. The booths at the New Piccadilly are always worth a look too. For high-backed opulence, in cod-Elizabethan coffee-shop style circa 1957, the Lucky Spot (close to Selfridge's) is unbeatable.


Classic Cafes | Iain Sinclair interview

Classic Cafes | Quentin Reynolds interview

Classic Cafes | Mr Burkeman interview

Classic Cafes | Pellicci interview [ES magazine]

Classic Cafes | Lorenzo Marioni interview


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