Central London Cafes

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Lucky Spot (nr. Selfridges)


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 / Soho...

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 W1. RIP
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 W1. RIP-ish
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 W1. RIP
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 undesirables.)

Bar Italia, Frith Street W1.
Founded in 1949 (some say it was the original Soho coffee bar) and open twenty three hours a day, Bar 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 W1.
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 weekends]

Maison Bertaux, Greek Street W1.
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 Street W1.
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. [Open weekends]

Trattoria da Aldo, Greek Street W1.
Lost trattoria with rows of cute booths strung round with cod-Italiana. [Open weekends]

Val Taro, Kingly Street W1. RIP Jan 2005
Plain interior 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 rancid.

Bonbonniere Restaurant, 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 Jul 04
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 find.



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 W1. RIP
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

Silva's, Shaftesbury Avenue WC2.
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 Street W1.
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." (Peter Negri/Tea & A Think)

Snack Bar, Brooks Mews W1.
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 Street W1.
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. [Open weekends]

Rendez-Vous, Maddox 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 Lane W1.
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 weekends]

Metropolitan, Edgware Rd W2. RIP Sep 2004
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]

Blandford's, Chiltern 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.



Near Piccadilly...

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 St W1.
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 SW1. NEW
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 Place WC2.
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 best.

Porky's Pantry, Chandos Place WC2.
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, SW1 NEW
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.' (Patrick Turland)



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