This is the full unexpurgated
Central London Cafe Tour put together for Architecture
Week 17-26 June
2005. The tour takes in
a range of 1950s and 1960s London cafe styles.
As of 2005 all these
places are under clear and present danger. Most will be gone
in a few months or years. (The walk starts off in Marylebone,
curves along the edges of Bond St, plunges into Soho, then arcs
up to Goodge St.)
French cafés and US
diners have received substantial cultural focus over the decades.
But the old style Italian Formica cafes of the 1950s, and earlier,
have never been given their due despite their manifest
contribution to the (sub)cultural life of post war Britain.
Often dismissed as 'greasy
spoons', Classic Cafes (those unchanged British working men's
Formica caffs which retain most of their mid-century fixtures
and fittings) are actually mini-masterpieces of vernacular 1950s
and 1960s design.
Most are now vanishing in a
welter of redevelopment. But once, their of-the-moment design
and mass youth appeal galvanised British cultural life and incubated
a whole postwar generation of writers, artists, musicians, crime
lords and sexual interlopers.
For a country that had emerged
from World War Two economically crippled and facing the complete
collapse of long-held social and political certainties, the caffs
became forcing houses for the cultural advance guard coursing
through London at the time.
The classic cafes of the 1950s
added an impassioned colour to Britain's post war social, artistic
and commercial scene. The mix of cafes, a nascent TV industry
and the skiffle cult effectively created a new world order as,
from 1963-1967, London dictated youth culture to the world.
Within a decade of the first
Soho espresso bar, The Moka at 29 Frith Street, being opened
in 1953, London became the world's hippest city: a ferment of
music, fashion, film, advertising, photography, sex, crime, and
The cafes were, "the first
sign that London was emerging from an ice age that had seen little
change in its social habits since the end of the first world
war. Once the ice began to crack, everything was suddenly up
for grabs." Without them, the unleashing influence of the
1960s might never have been so seismic.
Today, the big coffee combines
are destroying classic cafes en masse. By deliberately negotiating
exorbitant leases, and raising 'comparables' (rent levels used
to calculate local rent increases) they are putting competitors
out of business at an astonishing rate. This brutal Starbuck-ing
of the high street is leading to the wholesale erasure of British
vernacular retail architecture.
"The architecture and
ambience of [classic cafes] is fast being levelled in a kind
of massive cultural, corporate napalming by the big coffee chains...
they will not rest until every street in the West is a branded
mall selling their wares. Orwell's nightmare vision in 1984 was
of a jackboot stamping on the human face forever. If the coffee
corporates have their way, the future is best represented as
a boiling skinny latte being spilt in the lap of humanity in
perpetuity." (Adrian Maddox, The Observer, Aug 1 2004)
The loss of London's classic
cafes should be particularly sadly felt. For their far-reaching
impact on modern Britain, we owe them, and their founders, an
immense debt of gratitude. And a serious duty of care.
June 22 2005: 'Greasy spoon wars' by Chris Hall
There is no greater call to
arms during this year's Architecture Week (June 17-26) than that
of saving the old-style Italian cafes from the 1950s, often disparaged
as greasy spoons or working men's caffs.
Adrian Maddox, author of the
definitive book on the subject, Classic Cafes, has compiled a
"last chance to see" tour of around 30 of them in London
(see www.classiccafes.co.uk for details).
Maddox's concern is with the
design and ambience of these cafes, which he finds "bracingly
Pinteresque, seedy and despairing".
The pictures in his book are
part Edward Hopper, part Martin Parr.
I met Maddox at the New Piccadilly
cafe, the "cathedral of cafes", in a side street by
"Everything here is original,
apart from the mirrors," he says. He's soon enthusing about
the Thonet chairs, the three shades of Formica and the extremely
rare horseshoe menu.
This Saturday, the cafe can
be seen on BBC1 in the new Richard Curtis film, The Girl in the
Cafe, with Kelly MacDonald and Bill Nighy.
For Maddox, it's a war against
the big coffee chains whose "policy of extermination"
is forcing these cafes out of business.
He reckons that there are only
500 classic cafes left in the UK. Two London cafes, Pellici's
in Bethnal Green and Alfredo's (now S&M) in Islington, have
been grade II listed by English Heritage, but most, if not all,
will be gone in a few months or years, he claims.
Is listing the answer? Catherine
Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, says: "A
lot of the charm is in the furniture and the menus and what's
on the tables. It's popular art, not high architecture. Listing
them can only protect the building elements."
In fact, the owner of the New
Piccadilly, Lorenzo Marioni, is glad that English Heritage didn't
recommend it for listing last September, as this would have diminished
his potential for selling it, which he still might have to do.
With his landlord demanding
ever higher rent, he's never going to be able to compete with
the big chains. "I'd just love to be here at a reasonable
rent, serving the local community at a reasonable price,"
Marylebone High Street (Bond St tube/Baker St tube)
[73 Marylebone Road W1]
Open for nearly forty five years, and owned by the Schiavetta
family, this Art Deco Vitrolite chip shop has a full range of
classic cafe chairs and tables.
& Son [35 Marylebone Lane W1]
Untouched, early twentieth century deli and old-fashioned
provisions shop with cafe area featuring unique, folding
white leatherette-seating (late 60s vintage). Many archive pictures,
and a full history of the premises, are displayed in the windows.
(Rothe's liptauer sandwiches are legendary.)
Cafe [58 Marylebone Lane W1]
caff on the verges of Oxford St. Good exterior mosaic tile
patterning and a big bold nameplate and awnings. Decent booth
interior. John and Alma Negri were the proprietors for many years
from the late 50s to the late 60s. "My paternal grandparents
ran it before that. I remember seeing my auntie Brenda on the
evening TV news in 1963, crossing Wigmore Street, with a tray
of tea and biscuits: they were for Christine Keeler and John
Profumo when they had just been arrested... We only opened at
lunchtimes and it was run by my dad's twin sisters, Anna and
Maria. I think they were as big a draw as the steak and kidney
puddings." (Peter Negri)
Spot [14 North Audley St W1]
Oddly grand carved stone exterior. Heavy on crypto-Swiss
ambience. High-backed carved pews, lots of dark panelling
which the owner insists is meant to be Elizabethan pastiche.
Bar [Brooks Mews W1] RIP
gem, utterly overlooked in a superb lost mews by Claridges.
Amazing sign and door handle. Brilliant green leatherette seats.
Worn Formica tables. Interesting mix of clientele: cabbies &
Claridges doormen. Functional and friendly. A model of British
utility. (One of only two remaining establishments to be listed
in 'The Good Cuppa Guide' of the 1960s.)
Lounge [81 Grosvenor St W1]
One of the original first generation Coffee bars. This swish
little place is kitted out in 60s Swiss-style (very much
like the Lucky Spot in North Audley St, St Moritz in Wardour
St, and the Tiroler Hut in Westbourne Grove.) This styling was
once all the rage as Alpine-exotica briefly irrupted throughout
Europe after the war. Wistful seemingly hand-drawn
exterior sign, lots of polished brown wood, fancy
ironwork lighting, inlaid coloured lights, and pew-bench seating.
(Don't miss the two basement sections hidden at the back.)
of... Rendez-Vous [56 Maddox St W1]
Gaze longingly at the outside Espresso
Bongo-like sign and then scoot into one of the very best
London caffs left standing around Bond Street. It's arranged
like a domestic living room: covered tables, wooden chairs, lovely
lights, lashings of warm Formica...
of... Euro Snack Bar [Swallow St W1]
The little Euro Snack Bar was installed
in an obscure street lined with lap-dancing clubs. Superb orange
and green frontage (with top 60s typography), small, comfortable
booths, low ceilings, and odd little mini-counters on every table
for holding the drab-green salt n' pepper sets. (These are featured
on the cover of the book Classic Cafes.)
[78 Brewer St W1] RIP
Ruined cafe (near New
Piccadilly) that has some interesting original
1950s exterior features: marble and Vitrolite stall riser
with chrome stall-boards; chrome transom/ventilators. (A well-preserved
'harvest' mural is still visible through the windows.)
[58 Brewer St W1]
Unremarkable modernised cafe, however a historic family archive
is displayed on the walls.
Piccadilly [8 Denman St W1] RIP
A cathedral amongst caffs
- a place of reverence. One of the few populuxe Festival of Britain
interiors left in the country. Pink Vitrolite coffee machine.
Big plastic horseshoe menu. 50s clock. Wall-to-wall yellow Formica.
Rows of shiny dark wood booths. The New Piccadilly menu alone
is a collectors-item. "I've seen 50 years of change in this
place," says proprietor, Lorenzo Marioni, whose late father,
Pietro, founded the joint in 1951. Lorenzo was born in a village
in the Apennines, not far from Pisa. His parents moved to London
shortly after the Second World War. He followed them in 1949.
Within a year he was washing up and peeling the potatoes. The
Marionis once owned six cafés but sold the premises, one
by one, to the next wave of immigrants. Soho gangster Albert
Dines once sat in the New Piccadilly and told the young Lorenzo
about his association with Prince Felix Yusupov, one of the conspirators
who killed Rasputin and sought refuge in London in 1919. In 1956,
the cafe became a meeting point for Hungarian dissidents fleeing
the Soviet invasion. (Lorenzo remembers the day when one of their
number proudly showed his father a rival's severed finger, wrapped
in a handkerchief.)
[18 Brewer St W1]
Beautifully preserved 1950s exterior in green vitrolite and ceramic:
"This tightly packed shop is charmingly old-fashioned, and
the range of imported Italian produce extensive. Olive oil, porcini,
lentils, beans, Seggiano chestnut honey, Sapori panforte and
Paccheri pasta jostle for shelf space, and the deli counter contains
great olives, cheeses, hams, salamis and truffles, marinated
artichokes and anchovies plus ownmade pasta and sausages."
(Time Out) ... "Lina... has been going 50 years;
it still stocks everything an Italian chef, or anyone cooking
Italian food would ever want and even if Italian food does not
appeal it is still worth calling in here for a glimpse of what
Soho used to be in an era before supermarkets, when it was the
only place in the country to buy any faintly exotic foodstuff.
(When we interviewed the late Jane Grigson she recalled that
if in the 1950s and early 1960s you were walking along and spotted
someone else with a packet of spaghetti in the old blue wax paper
you would wave acknowledging a kindred spirit!)" (Jancis
of... 2I's Coffee Bar [59 Old Compton St]
The 2is, owned by professional wrestler Paul Lincoln, was a musical
melting pot: country, blues, jazz, skiffle, calypso and rock.
It attracted visitors from all over the country. 2is regular
Joe Moretti moved to London in 1958 to play guitar for Vince
Eager and Gene Vincent: "In 1958 the 2is was the fuse for
the explosion that was to come in the world of UK Rock and Rollit
was just a little cafe with an old battered piano in the basement
in Old Compton street. But it had a soul and a buzz" Adam
Faith recalled: "a ground floor cafe, with linoleum floors
and Formica tables it was downstairs, at night, under the street,
that the real action took placethe record industry, fuelled by
the skiffle craze, began to explode. But everyone expected it
to be a nine-day wonder. The old-timer agents would sit around
in their old-timer agent restaurants, shaking their heads, muttering
'It'll all be over in a week or two'"
of... Heaven and Hell coffee bar
Next door but one to the 2is. Another legendary 50s coffee bar.
[22 Frith Street W1]
On the site since 1945 (before the 50s Espresso boom) the neon entrance sign and ornate hanging
clock front an interior with stools running down a long counter
space laminated in two-tone Formica. Authentic Soho Italiana,
but the atmosphere is somewhat vitiated by the large projection
of... The Moka coffee bar [29 Frith St W1]
Reputedly the first Soho Espresso bar. The Moka had the first
Gaggia machine in London. The venue was created by Pino Riservato
(related by marriage to the director of the Gaggia company).
Originally a dental equipment salesman, he decided to open his
own cafe on the site of the old Charlotte Laundry after failing
to sell any coffee machines to other establishments. The Moka
was designed by Geoffrey Crockett and Maurice Ross. Opened to
a massive publicity fanfare by Gina Lollabrigida, it would be
the model for many cafes to come. (Soon after, the Coffee Inn
at 37 Park Lane opened, and the Mocambo in Knightsbridge, and
The Chalet in Grosvenor Street.) This 1950s cafe scene led to
the reforging of London in the 60s as the world's hippest city:
"a ferment of music, fashion, film, photography, scandal
[23a Frith Street W1]
The Greeks and Italians set up the first Soho cafes early in
the 1900s. This time warp 1950s
basement restaurant has remained pretty well unchanged for
half a century. Brilliant 50s door sign, foyer floor, and stairway
down to the eatery itself. The décor is well preserved:
rough white plaster, a primitive painted mural, ancient furniture
and a wall space in a corner covered with cards congratulating
Jimmy's on its fiftieth birthday, "a comfortable place to
sit and read, the Greek music at a low level ... a welcome respite
from the aggressive din of central London."
[23b Frith St W1] RIP
'The finest Coffees for over 50 years'. The Angelucci family
have been blending coffee on Frith St since they came here before
World War One. Go to see the straining shelves, the fluted wall
coverings, the 50s cash machine, the old grinder, the unchanged
dangling lights... "Alma Angelucci and her family have been
coffee specialists for over 50 years. Her father's secret blend
Mokital is enjoyed in many restaurants and cafes in London, including
[18 Old Compton St W1]
Retains a late 1960s pine wood design feel.
Old Compton St W1] RIP
Sensitively renovated restaurant with massive basement and a
small add-on side cafe which used to sport more 1950s fittings
than it does now. Amazing Sorrentine murals. (Be sure to check
out the amazing moderne ceiling mouldings similar
to Morrelli's in Broadstairs.)
of... The Pollo [20 Old Compton Street W1]
The Pollo with its ox-blood booths,
Lapidus beanpole railings, Contemporary ceiling, murals, top
notch signage, and perfectly preserved light fittings always
had hungry queues waiting outside...
of... Cafe Torino [corner of Old Compton St & Dean St W1]
Soho had a greater concentration of coffee bars in the fifties
than anywhere. The new caffs attracted many of London's leading
intellectuals: Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach...
At Cafe Torino, the prices were
low and the owners allowed credit. Poets and pale young artists
flocked there. Writer and Soho character Daniel Farson recalled:
"It was pleasantly old-fashioned with tall, arched windows.
It had wrought-iron tables with marble tops, cups of proper coffee
you could talk for hours over a small cup of coffee... the tables
were usually crowded. There were dark Italians huddled in earnest
discussions, suddenly bursting into furious argument and several
pale young artists and poets searching half-heartedly for jobs"...
Coffee Stores [52 Old Compton St W1]
"Opened in 1887 by Mr Hassan. With over a century of experience
in the world of coffee and using the finest Arabica beans, and
with over 60 different blends available, Algerian Coffee Stores
are one of the leading coffee experts in the UK, specialising
in the creation of new exclusive blends to suit the individual
entrepreneur" ... "The current owner, Mr Crocetta,
inherited it from his father-in-law, who refused to accept credit
cards or sell tea bags. Coffee was delivered to the basement,
roasted, then sold wholesale or through the shop upstairs. The
shop now sells 120 different types of coffee and over one tonne
of coffee each week. It is also a stockist for Alessi products,
imports and repairs espresso machines from Italy, and does now
sell tea bags, along with some delicious chocolates - coated
plums and ginger and large bars of sleek black Valrhona. The
roasting is done in a separate warehouse - there simply isn't
room in the shop. Mr Crocetta buys his coffee through brokers,
who send him samples. He then roasts these in his tiny roaster
on the top floor of the shop. If he is happy with the beans,
he places an order... he has seen a 30 per cent increase in the
purchase of espresso coffee in the last five years."
of... Bunjies Coffee House & Folk Cellar [27 Litchfield Street
One of the original
Folk cafes of the 50s. Bunjie's (named after a hamster) has played host to Paul Simon, Bob
Dylan and Al Stewart.
A regular haunt too of
writers, singers, comedians and cartoonists. One of Leigh Bowery's favourite cafes
in the 80s, and Jarvis Cocker's... "[Bunjies is] a bunker just off Charing Cross Road
that probably hasn't changed since it opened over 40 years ago.
Jarvis Cocker first discovered the place when he was studying
at Central Saint Martins College of Art round the corner... Pulp's
songs are like Mike Leigh plays set to music - little kitsch
'n' sink dramas about urban deprivation and strange sex. Cocker's
lyrics, which are group's mainstay, are perfect examples of lo-fi
realism, full of dirty fingernails and soiled undergarments,
damp council flats and indiscriminate muggings."
da Aldo [51 Greek St W1] RIP
Old time 1960s style trattoria with rows of neat little booths
and cod-Italiana hanging from the ceilings.
[28 Greek Street W1]
130 year old patisserie cum cafe sited between a strip club and
an old pub with an upstairs room that looks like an old dairy
annex. The rickety seats and tables, and worn Lincrusta lend
it a, "traditional French charm and paysan appeal."
[21 Bateman St W1]
The Italian flag exterior and the
lovely old sign are all absolutely untouched and the inside resembles
a miniature village hall circa 1958 - linoleum floor, square
Formica tables, shabby posters, tiny serving area, creaky wooden
chairs, dingy murals. Look carefully at the sign on the side
of the restaurant. The legend on the house coffee machine reads
'Con la Cimbali... un Cimbalino!'; like everything else in this
little enclave, it's been here for over 40 years. "The espresso
it produces is consistently the best in London. On top of which
it is probably also the cheapest you'll find... " (One of
the few remaining Soho basement drinking clubs is hidden round
the corner, check out the Lorelei sign.)
[101 Wardour St W1]
A little slice of authentic Soho
of olde which, along with the Lorelei, has outlasted the developers.
Chalet style booths in cheery green leatherette, and massive
of... 101 Snack Bar RIP [101 Charing Cross Road WC2]
This little pull-in (almost opposite the Phoenix theatre) has
been a Soho staple for decades. Recently unsympathetically refitted,
the all yellow and black laminate interior was blazingly bright,
standing like a beacon all day and night. The outside sign, long
gone, was a 50s classic.
of ... Tea Rooms [Museum Street W1]
at its most downbeat and determined.
Paint-stripper tea, biscuit displays, bacon sandwich posters...
timeless, brilliant and perfect. With its trademark Deco-yellow
exterior sign, the Tea Rooms seemed to refract two previous centuries
of caff half-life: a hint of nineteenth century worker's snack
bar; a dash of twentieth century Lyons dining hall... The mosaic-Formica
interior had an affecting spartan beauty. (The owners Rene and
Eugenio Corsini attended to their flock from an old war-horse
cooker called The London.)
of ... Zita (aka Ida's) [New Oxford St/Shaftesbury Avenue WC2]
Just round the corner from the Tea Rooms, the Zita
preserved a few highlights from the Festival of Britain Contemporary
look: a nice 1950s exterior sign, glorious orange Formica seats
and a suspended ceiling. (The old ladies who ran Zita's had orange
aprons with the cafe logo on it. They've gone back to Italy but
their cousin has bought it.)
Buttery [Store Street/Alfred Place WC1] RIP Jun 06
Great booth seating and a pleasing mid-century ambience all set
well back from the crushing boredom of the Tottenham Court Road
furniture shops. The Sidoli family used to run chains of cafes
& Kebab House [Whitfield Street W1] RIP
main front-section is a standard fish
but tucked round the side is a bolt-on mini-restaurant that looks
pretty well untouched since 1953. Features include: square, solid,
metal and drab-green leatherette chairs; ranks of tables; polished
vinyl-wood walls; scallop shell ceilings; period clocks; random
of ... Tony's [91 Charlotte Street W1]
most infamous of all the 1940s (pre Espresso) Fitzrovia cafes.
Frequented by Lucien Freud, George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, Louis
MacNeice & Quentin Crisp. The largely boho/villain/prostitute
clientele was overseen by a razor-scared Maltese called George.
[Tottenham St W1]
leatherette booth selection, and marble-top tables.
north Tottenham Court Road (Goodge Street tube)
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