A listing of central London cafes convenient
for cheap-ish eats when all you can find to hand are dismal US
chains charging top kroner for overpriced designer latte concoctions.
All these places are off the beaten track
but all are worth a look. Only a few (marked) are open at weekends.
As ever, we can't guarantee that any of these will be left standing
by the time you get to visit them... Also, here's the full unexpurgated Central London Cafe
Tour that was put
together for Architecture Week 17 - 26 June 2005...
Near Oxford Street /
101 Snack Bar, Charing
Cross Road WC2. RIP
Now much altered, this little pull-in,
almost opposite the Phoenix Theatre, has been a Soho staple for
decades. The intensely coloured yellow and black laminate interior
stands out like a beacon. The faded and broken outside sign was
a classic (now sadly replaced as of Feb 2004!). A firm favourite
with the local, ahem, 'working' community. [Open weekends] Now
"pretty well finished as a classic cafe, as the original
shop sign, glass display, customer counter, and stool-seating
has all been removed. The yellow Formica walls are partially
obscured by a drinks fridge." (Patrick Turland)
Pollo, Old Compton Street
The lovely red and black seats,
beanpole rails and hanging signs recreate something of the look
and atmosphere of the original Soho coffee bars. Despite horror
stories about the victuals this place has been a boho stronghold
for decades.[Open weekends] (The area is going to be 'developed'
to make away for a block of apartment-hotels, apparently on the
basis that they will deter undesirables.)
Centrale, Moor Street
Closing Dec 2004... (Tiny but with
a good big window frontage and battered old brown vinyl seats.
Functional and lovely, this is where Malcolm McClaren used to
dragoon his 1980s band, Burundi pirateers, Bow Wow Wow.) "The
area is to be 'developed' to make away for a block of apartment-hotels,
apparently on the basis that they will deter undesirables...
The properties on that side of Moor Street (excluding Ed's Easy
Diner and the pub) are being demolished, as are some of the properties
at the rear in Old Compton St...18th century buildings that should
have been listed." (Patrick Turland). Re-opens in Archer
St, W1 Feb 2005
Cappuccetto, Moor Street
Soon to be demolished (Nov 2004)
Small patisserie with a salvaged part-panelled chalet interior
serving own-brand cappuccinos and patisserie. The owner, Alberto,
claims to have introduced pesto to Britain in 1962 and
the powdering of cappuccinos with cocoa. True!? [Open weekends]
(The area is going to be 'developed' to make away for a block
of apartment-hotels, apparently on the basis that they will deter
Bar Italia, Frith Street
Founded in 1949 (some say it was the
original Soho coffee bar) and open twenty three hours a day,
Italia's neon entrance sign with hanging-clock fronts an
undeniably fine interior. Classic cafe stools run down a long
continental counter; two-tone Formica is everywhere; steel n'
chrome fixtures abound. Absolutely authentic. Yet somehow it
seems almost as fake as Ed's Easy Diner. Probably because it's
glutted 24/7 with droves of Soho media flunkeys, Shoreditch twatlings
and Hoxton-tot detritus. The crappy 80s big screen TV and crippling
prices don't help. [Open weekends]
Lorelei, Bateman Street
Slapbang in the centre of Soho, the Italian
flag exterior and the lovely old sign are all absolutely untouched.
The interior resembles a miniature village hall circa 1958: linoleum
floor, square Formica tables, shabby posters, tiny serving area,
creaky wooden chairs. Heaven. Part of The Long Firm was
filmed here. NB: the Capanina drinking club sign over the doorway
is a beautiful piece of Soho memorabilia. "Con la Cimbali...
un Cimbalino!" So reads the message on the front of the
coffee machine in this great 1950s café/restaurant. Like
everything else in the place the coffee machine has been here
for over 40 years. The espresso it produces is consistently the
best I've tasted in London. On top of which it is probably also
the cheapest you'll find - certainly in Central London. Lorelei
has a great atmosphere: it is small, dark and dingy; with the
one window onto the street being full of pot plants to obscure
nosy glances from passers-by. One wall is actually a great large
painting of a mermaid, whilst the outside of the place is painted
in green, white and red like an Italian flag. Even visiting the
toilet here is an experience unto itself - they are housed in
the back yard! And you'll notice that even the plumbing seems
to be original" (www.londondossier.com)
Bar Bruno Snack Bar,
Wardour Street W1.
Service here can be grudging and, at times,
wholly unforthcoming. Bar Bruno is also particularly anxious
about single diners taking up space so prepare for glares and
muttering. That said, this is a fine little slice of ye authentic
Soho of olde which, along with the Lorelei, has so far eluded
the developers. Chalet-style pew booths in cheery green leatherette
sit under massive wall menus offering dozens of sandwich combinations.
Opening late into the night - well, around 7.00pm - makes this
quite a rarity for the area. (The brothel above has been the
subject of a longstanding campaign to keep Soho 'real'). [Open
Maison Bertaux, Greek
Small patisserie cum cafe with a rickety upstairs room that looks
like an old dairy annex: wood seats and tables and a delightful
selection of cakes and pastries. [Open weekends]
Amalfi, Old Compton
Pleasantly renovated restaurant with a large basement. The adjoining
coffee bar is ruined but the main room has kept its great murals,
lamps, Sorrentine tile-work and a beautiful blue ceiling sculpture.
Trattoria da Aldo, Greek
Lost trattoria with rows of cute booths strung round with cod-Italiana.
Val Taro, Kingly Street
W1. RIP Jan 2005
but the brown leatherette bench seats and huddled, rueful ambience
qualify it for 'classic' status. The wall menu and paintings
on the back wall add some atmosphere. Service is invariably spectacularly
Woodstock St W1. NEW
The interior has
the feel of a Sorrentine ice-cream parlour with a big tiled sea-faring
mural at the back of a sizeable floorspace. The seried ranks
of nut brown tables and chairs, and the pretty wall lamps, make
this a great comfort zone. Hugely expensive, with a £10
minimum charge. [Open weekends]
Lido Bar Cafe, Great
Castle Street W1. RIP
Similar to the
Bonbonniere: a large seating area, walls covered in murals, fancy
lighting over the counter, pseudo-chalet half-timbered beaming
everywhere and so-so seating and tables. Best facets are the
excellent blue awnings and external signage in a 50s vein. Queues
round the block most lunch times.
Near Marble Arch...
Parma, Seymour Place
(Marble Arch end) W1.
RIP July 2004
The main window bay appears
to date from the 1900s and is completely unchanged from the days
when it was probably an Edwardian shopfront. The original 50s
cafe signs in the panes remain intact - a real rarity for this
part of town. The sills are full of choking old plants above
which hang three large beguiling chalet lamps. As if this wasn't
enough the doorway is of original mid-century design with a fine
circular handle and a cheery coloured 'Open' sign quite unmatched
anywhere else in central London! Hooray. The interior is all
dark steamy oppressive fake wood. A very good selection of Formica
tables but, unfortunately, no matching seating - on this occasion
we'll let this pass as the Parma's compensating charms are overwhelming.
We particulary like the grand tea-boiler fronted by a small breakfast
bar with two swivel stools. And best of all, the Parma is tucked
into a pretty London street-that-time-forgot. Well worth a long,
drawn out visit with a follow-on trip to the nearby...
Buscot Dairy, Molyneux
Street W1. NEW
Beautifully sited in the base of a lovely mansion block in a
truly forgotten area of the West End north of Oxford St, this
place retains four good caramel booths, old wall heaters and
some original signage in the windows. The entire frontage looks
very 1940s and the cafe seems to be attached to an incredibly
narrow - only 6ft wide - block of flats. Obviously once a local
dairy, there's no other exterior quite like it in London. A real
Near Warren Street...
John's Sandwich Bar,
Mortimer Street W1.
A cluster of frayed brown booth seats, unusual patterned counter,
ratty hessian wall coverings and interesting false ceiling units.
Plus, for caff anoraks, the very same elegant patterned cup n'
saucer sets used by the mighty Alpino in Islington. The two staff
(John is the amiable plump looking fella) are usually up to their
womanzing ways: 'Whatta you wan' blondie', is one of their many
chat up lines. They also say comic things like '£5 cash
for the full English'"(David Fogarty)
Maria's, Grafton Way
A sumptuous orange and yellow vitrolite exterior with deco metal
trimming. Despite the small interior, there are two good gingham
covered tables with excellent minimalist 1960s leatherette n'
metal chairs. A chalet-style beamed ceiling and trusty Helvetica
awning completes the package.
Sidoli's (now Lino's) Alfred Place WC1. NEW
Good seating and
a pleasing ambience well away from the crushing boredom of the
Tottenham Court Road furniture shops. The Sidoli family used
to run chains of cafes throughout Britain. Alas, the once great
Sidoli sign is gone but all the buffed booths
remain. A brave testament to Moribundia in an area being ruthlessly
cleansed of any indigenous character.
Near New Oxford Street...
Tea Rooms, Museum Street
WC1. RIP Jan 2004
Peter Ackroyd's vital London: The
Biography reproduces a mournful 1914 painting by William Ratcliffe
entitled The Coffee House with the caption: "despite its
colourful interiorthe cafe conveys a characteristic melancholy
and anonymity." The Tea Rooms
miraculously retains all of this flavour.
Zita (now Ida's), Shaftesbury
Avenue WC2. RIP Feb 200r
(Redecorated Oct 2004).
Just round from The Tea Rooms, the Zita preserves
a few highlights left over from the Festival of Britain Contemporary
look: a nice 1950s exterior sign, glorious orange Formica seats
and a suspended ceiling. The waitresses had orange aprons with
the cafe logo on it. [Open weekends] "The
old ladies who ran Zita's have gone back to Italy but their cousin
has bought it. I told the friendly young apronless waiter that
I hoped he was going to keep the decor the same (especially the
booths) but I'm not sure he understood me - he just sort of smiled
and nodded. It seems to be called Ida's on the inside but the
awning and sign and remain the same." (James) Interior
destroyed Feb 2005
Half a dozen decent
booths but largely ruined in a recent makeover.
Il Buffone, Macklin
Street WC2. NEW
Excellent double frontage to the street consisting of classic
grey patterned mosaic tiles, smart red awnings with the caff's
Italian clown logo and inside five rangy booths and walls covered
with old-timer photos.
Near Bond Street...
Marylebone Cafe, Thayer
Plain-style caff on the verges
of Oxford Street. Good exterior mosaic tile patterning and a
big bold nameplate. Decent booth interior. "This cafe holds many memories for me as my
parents John and Alma Negri were 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. The old phone (it needed four
old pennies with buttons A and B to press) was in a corner at
the top of the cellar stairs, and was where the local junkies
would slip into to have a fix. We also had the Restaurant next
door (is it a travel agents now?) 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."
Negri/Tea & A Think)
Snack Bar, Brooks Mews
A hidden gem, utterly overlooked in a lost
mews surrounded by galleries and serviced apartments. Amazing
sign, good door handles, brilliant green leatherette seats, worn
Formica tables. Functional and friendly. A model of British utility.
The Chalet, Grosvenor
This compact little place (with two hidden
rear sections) is kitted out in 1960s Swiss-style very much like
the Lucky Spot (in North Audley Street) and Scoffs (on Kensington
High Street). This look was once all the rage, as Alpine-exotica
briefly irrupted throughout Europe. Lots of polished brown wood,
curved panels, fancy ironwork lighting and pew-bench seating.
Street W1.RIP Mar 24 2004
Espresso Bongo-like sign outside
and a domestic living room interior featuring a bay-fronted window,
covered tables, excellent wooden chairs, hanging lamps, counters
and lashings of warm Formica on the walls. [Open weekends]
The Lucky Spot, North
Audley Street W1.
An oddly grand stone exterior fronts this
crypto-Swiss interior featuring carved high-backed pews and lots
of dark panelling. The owner reckons the design is Elizabethan
pastiche. [Open weekends]
Paul Rothe, Marylebone
Lane W1. RIP
Untouched deli and old-fashioned provisions shop dating from
early twentieth century with unique fold-up white leatherette
seating area. Renowned for its liptauer sandwiches. [Open weekends]
Golden Hind, Marylebone
Open for nearly forty five years and owned by the Schiavetta
family, this Art Deco chippie with classic cafe chairs and tables-and
staggered opening hours-has become monstrously popular. [Open
Rd W2. RIP
Not technically in Central London
(you need to jump on the the no. 6 or 98 buses - or any that
go up Edgware Rd from Marble Arch) but absolutely unmissable
if you're in town, The Metropolitan's frontage is unspectacular
but the caff is actually one of the most exquisite and wonderfully
preserved in London. Here's the inside dope: masses of seaside
lime n' cream laminate; two-tone surgical pink walls; lots of
original black deco mirrors; flesh coloured chequer-board flooring;
a wonderfully mysterious back serving hatch; a clutch of brilliantly
preserved seats, upholstered benches and tables; two old-time
ceiling fans and a phenomenal moderne logo set above the stretch
of beautiful counter. [Open weekends]
Street W1 NEW
Just of the Marylebone
drag - the exterior's recently been altered but the inside is
pure plain-style perfection: dead and loving it! Apparently a favourite
of Ray Davies.
Euro Snack Bar, Swallow
St W1.RIP Jun 04
Great forgotten hideaway that nestles
in Swallow St off Piccadilly - wonderful sign and front that
hides a bijou scoutmaster green interior with several small booths.
A true find in a tourist-tack dustbowl. [Open weekends]
New Piccadilly, Denman
The one, the only...50s retro style before
50s retro was even thought of. A great 7 days a week place, unusual
in an increasingly provincial town centre where getting a cup
of tea after 7.00pm is such a problem. A fine bolthole from the
Little Tyneside atmosphere that now pervades Soho. [Open weekends]
Sergio's, Eagle Place
Useful little cafe
off Piccadilly. Good sign and a few booths. Worth a look. But
eclipsed by the glories of The Euro Snack Bar nearby.
Near Trafalgar Square...
Chandos Sandwich Bar, Chandos
A detour here from Piccadilly towards Trafalgar Sq reveals the
Chandos' fine red signage and Wimpy-style interior with solid
booths and an even better range of single chrome and green leatherette
stools ranged along one wall. Hidden off a great little cluster
of hideaway streets just right for mooching away sodden afternoons
in the middle of a grey London autumns. The city at its moribund
Porky's Pantry, Chandos
Pleasant enough little 'plain style'
joint. Covered in show posters: 'a 60's/early 70's sign, leatherette
booth seating, Formica tables, wooden-slatted ceiling, and (
if memory serves) an original hot-water dispenser. The fine display
of plastic and china pigs may be a none too subtle dig at the
nearby Charing Cross police station.' (Patrick Turland)
Sergio's, Eagle Place,
Useful little cafe
off Piccadilly. Good sign and a few booths. Worth a look. But
eclipsed by the glories of The Euro Snack Bar nearby.
Orsini, Whitcomb Street, WC2 NEW
Hidden off the
main tourist drag of Trafalgar Square, this half-decent little
plain cafe has some pensive and withdrawn brown booths at the
back. Nice hanging sign outside too... 'refurbished by new owners August 2004. New booths
have been installed, with a wood-laminate top tables, and brown
leatherette seats... a sympathetic refit. It's now called Orsini.'
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