Today, you have to look harder than ever to find decent, intact
classic cafes. The daddy of them all, The
New Piccadilly in Denman Street W1 - a cathedral among caffs
- has retained its superb aspect on the hinterlands of Soho since
1951. "I've been here fifty years," says proprietor
Lorenzo Marioni, "and apart from
when I was in the army, I've been here on this street every day
of my life... I'm the last one on the ship."
Cafes like The New Piccadilly, that survived
the culls of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, should be designated
national treasures. Go there immediately to see all the 'classic'
elements below still in place...
Large, bold with a jolly font and
preferably grubby with a serious lack of maintenance is best.
We once would have recommended the 'Monaco' as a good example
[now demolished] but the interior signs of the 'Regent Snack
Bar' and 'The New Piccadilly' are hard to beat. The 'Rendez-Vous'
is also smart. Ideally the sign is angled at 90 degrees to the
front so as to draw the eye in down some lost back alley. The
sight of a fine sign at 50 paces is a pulse racer and no mistake.
Doors & Windows
The lost art of continental styling
is what we're after here. Good rosewood, possibly also etched
glass like 'The Quality Chop House.' A deco or utility style
piece of ironwork is most welcoming.
Occasionally a fine steel example
can be noted. For maximum effect the shape should be of a kind
impossible to find in a contemporary ironmongers.
For left-alone 50s
& 60s light fittings the Monaco was king on Great
Russell street, but now it's demolished other must-sees include:
Victoria's Fiesta; Islington's Alpino; Picollo
in the City; Mayfair's Chalet... The Copper Grill had
an odd variety of Swiss lights in the main window that were replicated
in the old Parma caff on Seymour Place. New Piccadilly has superb
Festival of Britain light fittings which are unique. On no account
miss the mesmeric light display that makes the ceiling of the
Dante (RIP) such a blaze of orange Formica. Probably a
good idea to check the Vitrolite ceiling at the River Cafe
in Putney Bridge too for some context...
Tables & Chairs
Chairs must be wooden or of some
equally pleasing steel or aluminium variant. And yes, we do want
them of vintage 50s stock whenever possible. They should also
be moveable. Tables should be Formica
clad [everything should be Formica clad!] with a subdued abstract
pattern worn and thin from years of loving mug nudging. Chairs
should positively clatter.
This is asking a lot but in Europe
these booths are quite standard. Some London cafes like 'Brunchies'
and the 'Copper Grill' do have sectioned off booth-style seating
of a utilitarian design. This is good. But if all cafes had banquettes
of the quality of 'RK Stanleys' then all would be well in the
A glass/formica arrangement is
what we like to see with lots of cabinet action and a slavering
display of the light refreshment on offer. In the middle of it
all a gleaming volcanic Gaggia boiler blasting into the teacups
and spuming the cappuccinos is de rigeur.
Paneling is always a good sign.
Formica is the covering of choice [see 'City Snacks' on Theobalds
Rd], but anything from a distressed woodchip to a worn lino can
be effective. The dark rosewood decor of the new 'Great Eastern
Dining Rooms' in Old St is a case in point. But for the very
pinnacle, the 'Pellicci' in Bethnal Green with its luxury marquetry
has to be the example par excellence.
Dressed in white coats
and with Italian accents please - preferably on the elderly side
with a full family of generations of caff workers surrounding
them. Here we display the fine waitress - and owner of the Zita
caff just off New Oxford Street - sporting her in-house orange
apron (These are now collectors' items.) Sometimes the odd foul
tempered matriarch can be amusing (see especially the owner of
the Corner Cafe in West Brompton). But by and large, since
this is Britain, you are unlikely to see anything resembling
'service' anyway... So, the staff had simply better look and
play the part. (NB: the owner of John's Cafe Chalk Farm
Rd used to be reassuringly disagreeable; and the guy who runs
Tony's in Victoria is none too accomodating either - especially
with cameramen trying to shoot his cafe signs.)
If you're lucky, a full set at
the ideal emporium will have been in use for a generation. Something
with a set pattern or simple line is good. And of course all
Pyrex cups and saucers are a must - though generally rare to
come by. Thank God the classic white pyrex cup and saucer set
has passed into design language and is ubiquitous. Note that
the large mugs at 'Alfredo's' in Islington were the worlds best
and collectors items in their own right. We highly recommend
the The Alpino cafe in Islington's Chapel Market for its
amazing range of plates and saucers too.
Our perennial favourite is a toasted
ham and cheese sandwich - 'bikini' as the Spanish would say.
Otherwise, you can forget it on the quality nosh front. A '10
x 10' BBC short film called 'Full English Breakfast' shown in
1999 covers the eats angle adequately. The meals, of course,
could have just as easily been consumed in any Happy Eater or
Harvester. It's not about the food - it's the presentation. And
since this is Britain you'll probably be eating BSE
chopped-slop in every sausage and pie anyway. Focus on the fixtures
and fittings and enjoy!
| Iain Sinclair interview
Classic Cafes | Quentin
Classic Cafes |
Mr Burkeman interview
Cafes | Pellicci interview [ES magazine]
| Lorenzo Marioni interview
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