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Cafe, St John St EC1 (RIP)

Regent Milk Bar, Edgware Road, 1997 (deceased)

"Think back. A post war British high street. Fifties Festival Britain with a streak of Sixties sanguine. Incidental music everywhere plays melody on the move, the sound of the garden suburbs. Light orchestral themes and period easy-listening shimmer just out of range.

Britain in repose: new towns and nylons, wool shops and slingbacks. A white-collar Shangri-La of gents outfitters, parks and gardens, chalet lodges, pavilions, bowling greens, banqueting halls, lidos and Lubetkin marine architecture.

At the centre of this cavalcade of contentment, the new espresso cafe - the very model of Mid-Century Modernism. Bringing a continental elan to colourless British town centres everywhere; a melee of mosaics, menus, laminates and leatherette.

The feel is Ease for England: the lost innocence of Terence Stamp and Julie Christie bowling down a mint municipal concourse. Tony Hancock meets Billy Liar. An esplanade of unbroken dreams..."

Classic Cafes, Adrian Maddox, Black Dog Publishing 2003

Greasy spoons crushed by coffee giants | Observer | August 2004 | by David Smith NEW

For half a century patrons have leant on the same Formica table tops, under lamps inspired by the Festival of Britain and mirrors advertising Fry's Chocolate. Having eaten their sausage and mash, they have paid at a till that opens with a resounding 'Kerchinng!'.

To step inside the New Piccadilly cafe in London's Soho is to enter an eerily preserved example of Britain's postwar cafe culture. But now the owner of the Italian family business, Lorenzo Marioni, is preparing for a final blast on the pink-enamel espresso maker before switching off his neon 'EATS' sign for good. The cafe - which has fed foreign royalty, West End stars and rockers (but not mods) - is going out of business.

It is not alone. Dozens of 'greasy spoons', beloved of builders and famed for their all-day breakfasts, are disappearing. Adrian Maddox, author of Classic Cafes , said: '2004 is fast becoming year zero for caffs. Every month another one bites the dust or news filters through of a fresh closure looming.'

Maddox noted that in the six months since his book was published, four of what he rated the 'top 10 cafes' in London have vanished. He predicts that all 10 - including the New Piccadilly, which shares number one spot with E Pellicci in London's Bethnal Green - will have been mopped up within 18 months.

The trend is being repeated all over Britain as giants such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Caffe Nero spread, providing fierce competition and driving rents beyond the reach of smaller independent operators.

'I can't believe that I'm leaving,' said Marioni, whose grandfather, Valentino Musetti, began working in Soho in 1908 as a dishwasher and opened his first cafe in Hammersmith before the First World War. 'I won't be able to afford the new rent, which is up by £25,000 on last year. If I fall three weeks behind with my rent, I'm out.'

Marioni, 61, works seven days a week to pay an annual rent of £51,000, along with £17,500 in taxes plus insurance. 'Before I open the door I'm paying £70,000, and I'm selling cups of tea for 50p. I've still got 1982 prices, but economics catches up with everyone. I can't put sausage and mash up from £4.50 to £12.50, which would be the cost to cover rents in the West End.'

The establishment is earmarked for redevelopment, which will see the loss of a place of immense social and historical importance, says Maddox, who runs a Classic Cafes website. 'You had a complete music, art, literature, crime, sexual sub-culture built out of the cafes. If it hadn't been for that base, you wouldn't have got the rock 'n' roll culture and the role of Britain leading and dictating culture to the world in the Sixties.

'The culture and the architecture and the ambience of these places is fast being levelled in a kind of massive cultural, corporate napalming by the big coffee stores. They will gang together, move into an area and have a lot of muscle with the landlords. They will then move their guys in a few streets down, play against each other and destroy everyone else.

'The chains will not rest until every street in the West is a branded mall. They provide the standard issue coffee shop: a sick, pallid parody of the cafe culture of the Fifties. Orwell's nightmare vision in 1984 was of a jackboot stamping on the human face for ever - we now know the future is best represented as a boiling skinny latte being spilt in the lap of humanity in perpetuity.'

Maddox estimated there were 500 or fewer Formica cafes from the Fifties and Sixties left in Britain. 'A couple of years from now and the whole thing's up: the only survivors will be the very rare few where the family owns the joint.'

He also noted the changing aspirations of the next generation of Italians in Britain. 'It's about the Italian diaspora: fathers are not passing the cafes on to their sons, as they did for 50 years. It's become regarded as such a lowly thing, requiring an early start to catch the building trade and very long hours. The same thing is happening with Asian kids and the traditional corner shop.'

According to a report by management consultancy Allegra Strategies, Starbucks now has a quarter share of the UK coffee market with 400 outlets. Costa Coffee has 330 stores, while Caffe Nero runs 173. The number of branded coffee shops trebled from 778 in 1999 to 2,299 and is expected to top 3,000 in two years.

Cathy Heseltine, marketing director of Starbucks Coffee Company, said: 'We believe there is plenty of room for a variety of coffee retailers, including Starbucks, independently-owned cafes and other chains. Star-bucks and its competitors have helped to invigorate the UK coffee bar market.'


Italian cafe gets the cream | The Guardian | 23 February 2005 | by Mark Gould NEW

The backlash against the Starbucking of the high street has started, announced caff aficionado Adrian Maddox at the news that Pellicci's, a tiny time capsule of a caff that has stood in the East End of London for 105 years, has been given listed building status.

'Fuck me, is it that important?' said equally amazed owner Nevio Pellicci as he raced around the Formica tables serving up gargantuan breakfasts at 7am, 'Your not having me on are you?'

Pellicciís has been in the same family since it was built in 1900. Nevio was born above the shop 79 years ago. And English Heritage is not having him on.

Recommending Grade II listing inspectors lovingly describe it as having a 'stylish shop front of custard Vitrolite panels, steel frame and lettering as well as a rich Deco-style marquetry panelled interior, altogether representing an architecturally strong and increasingly rare example of the intact and stylish Italian caf that flourished in London in the inter-war years'.

But they also issued a warning: 'The 50s caf is indeed becoming increasingly rare and the recent proliferation of new chain coffee shops is threatening their economic viability.'

Around 2000 Italian owned cafes and coffee bars flourished in the UK after the Second World War. Maddox, whose website is part memorial to the departed and part calls to arms, estimates that fewer than 500 remain.

He says they have been forced out by massive rent rises and what he calls 'a campaign of corporate cultural napalming' by the coffee chains.

He says these old cafes created an artistic and social cohesion that can't be invented by corporate chains desperate to create ersatz atmosphere.

'Music, fashion, film, advertising, photography, sex, crime, the avant-garde. The cafes were the creative enclaves where it was all honed. They added an impassioned European vibrancy to Britain's deflated post-war social, artistic and commercial scene - all we get from the coffee giants is McCappuccino jobs and Clone Town high streets'.

Pellicci's has its own place in popular culture. It was a meeting place of the notorious Kray gang who lived just around the corner in Voss Street.

Nev's son Nevio junior pulls out an autograph book stuffed with signed pictures of more recent Pellicci worshippers: a sunburst of soap stars, tabloid faces and Page 3 stunners.

It's also part of the fabric for Iain Sinclair, chronicler of weird resonances of the East End, who has been a devotee since the 1960s (see interview in Classic Cafes).

The caff is a focus and social hub of the area. Nevio is small and immaculately turned out in shirt, tie and zippered pullover and matinee idol pencil moustache. He knows everyone and everyone knows him.

And he thanks a sharp-eyed customer for saving the caf from being burnt down in 1999: 'It was about 11 o'clock at night and a regular was driving past in his cab and noticed what he thought were lights on in the kitchen. He stopped and saw it was a fire and phoned the Fire Brigade. They were here very fast and managed to save us.'

One of the many regulars who have been eating here for decades explains the Pellicci strategy: 'He gets you in with them,' he says pointing to a row of brilliant coloured sarsaparilla bottles sitting in the front window, 'you pester your mum and she brings you in and your hooked.'

Nevio Pellicci says the listing is 'a great honour' but he has one dispute with the inspectors. The Vitrolite panelling is primrose not custard.

But he says the tributes should go to his mother Elide who supervised the art-deco style marquetry interior created by in 1946 one of the best local carpenters - Achille Capocci.

'Around here was all carpenters, they all knew each otherís work, but mum wanted Capocci to do the marquetry as he was the best - everyone could tell his work.'

And as a tribute to Elide Pellicci, Capocci placed central marquetry plaque marked 'EP' in a place of honour along the panelling behind the counter.

It's the 1946 work that is so significant for English Heritage: 'This work was fitted in the context of the period just after the war. This was the year of the Britain Can Make It exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, heralding modern British design, and a few years later the Festival of Britain brought a style and design awakening to the Capital. It was also a period of increased Italian immigration and a great number of new cafes and espresso bar started to open up - a modern continuation of a long London tradition that started with 17th century coffee houses.'

So will Nevio be leaving the marquetry and Vitrolite to a coffee chain when he retires? 'Over my dead body.'

A well-breakfasted customer puts down his Star and laughs: 'I always said you was in institution, or should be in one, Nev.'


The Café that Time Forgot | The Evening Chronicle | Feb 14 2004 | by Vince Gledhill NEW

Frozen in time since before the Second World War, a seafront ice cream parlour has drawn generations from around the world to a Northumberland town.

But the clock has finally started to tick for the café that time forgot.

For Sale notices have gone up on the art deco walls of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea's Riviera Café and its future is uncertain.

The Riviera Café was developed from a group of cottages which looked out over Newbiggin Bay in the 1930s.

Italian shopkeeper Benjamin Bertorelli created the building in stages and it was finally completed in 1937.

The café was taken over by his son, Armando, who refused to follow changing fashions over the decades and kept it just the way it was in his father's day.

Today it has the same tables, chairs, light fittings and display units that were brought in when it was built.

The building remained unchanged, apart from regular decoration throughout the war years, the days of rationing, the rock `n' roll years, 1960s fashions, the Beatles era, men walking on the Moon and robot missions to Mars.

Inside the building, slot machines based on rolling balls and coins which date back 50 years mix with their garish electronic successors from the 1970s.

Some of the older fruit machines, which took old pennies, were converted by Armando Bertorelli 20 years ago to take their smaller replacements and still carry signs warning that they now only take `new' pennies.

Maintaining the machines and keeping the café just as he wanted it to stay was a lifetime's work for Newbiggin-born Mr Bertorelli.

The ice cream he sold was made to a family recipe handed down through the generations, and the coffee he sold was made to a blend he invented. The same blend is sold in the café today, four years after Mr Bertorelli died at the age of 83.

Running the café was a passion, and since his death it has been run by Mr Bertorelli's partner, Ella Clarke, who has kept it just the way he loved.

But she says she is too old to keep running it single-handedly.

"I have it open seven days a week, but it's hard work and I find it difficult to lift the heavier things now - so it's time I retired," she added.

But after a lifetime working in the café that time forgot, she does not want to see it change.

She said: "I'd like it to stay as it is, but people have their own ideas about these things and it might not".

Mr Bertorelli's grandson, Frank, 36, a hairdresser, tried running his grandfather's business for a while, but discovered that he did not have the same passion for it.

But one thing he is sure of is that if the café is sold to a new owner, the recipe for his grandfather's famous ice cream will not be part of the deal.

"The Bertorelli ice cream recipe will never go out of the family," he explained. "I might even get a shop somewhere else and start making it myself."

His great-grandparents, Benjamin and Rosie Bertorelli, first brought the recipe north.

Benjamin left his home village near Milan at the age of 12 and joined other family members in London, where they ran businesses in Covent Garden.

According to family legend, Bertorelli ice cream was a firm favourite of Queen Victoria.

Benjamin met and married Rosie in London and the couple headed for Northumberland to make themselves a new life.

They went first to Alnwick, but soon afterwards moved to Newbiggin, where they had two shops.

They bought several seafront cottages and had them converted into the Riviera Café.

Ella Clarke said: "In the early days people didn't go abroad for holidays, so Newbiggin was a popular place and the beach was crowded in the summer.

"The café was really busy then, and after the war, when the soldiers came home. The soldiers and their girlfriends would meet in the café. I loved working in the café then because I got to know them all, and, eventually, their children."

Bertorelli's ice cream was sold from a handcart on the beach and around the town and later from insulated pedal carts.

They were eventually replaced by motorised carts and then, in the 1960s, by a fleet of ice cream vans.

Armando Bertorelli became involved in his father's business at an early age.

"He was a fantastic man," said his grandson. "He could turn his hand to anything and even made his own refrigerators before the war to make the ice cream.

"When I was a lad and came into the café, he was always making or mending something. He converted a lot of the slot machines himself to take the new coins when they were introduced."

Some of the machines still in use at the café date back to the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

"He got a lot of stick from some people in the 70s, when all the new electronic games started to come into fashion, but he wanted the place to stay just as it always was. It was kept in immaculate condition. He was always painting, varnishing, or repairing, but he didn't want it to change."

Armando Bertorelli's wife, Jean, died in 1981. They had a son, Peter, who became a teacher and now lives out of the area.

The Evening Chronicle


New Piccadilly | Icon | December 2003 | by Claire Barratt NEW

Caffs like the New Piccadilly are a dying breed. It's a tragedy. Each is a little palace crafted by an individual owner, stamped with their own personal mark ­ be it Panatone boxes hanging from the ceiling or pink, plastic flowers planted in window boxes around the place.

But they're being priced out. And it doesn't take a genius to realise why. Try selling cups of tea at 50p a pop while you're renting a prime West End site and developers will soon come knocking on your door.

Established in 1953, the New Piccadilly was the bees-knees. All that colour. COLOUR! This was after the grey days of rationing and hardship. Yellow-patterned, Formica tables. Bright yellow walls. Red metal lamps, neon signs and a pink Cappuccino machine. And Espressos. Those dark, rich pools of liquor never before encountered by us Brits, drinkers of our milky tea.

In a little street just north of Piccadilly Circus, it was the place to be seen. The New Piccadilly followed the norm, having been set up by an Italian family seeking a better life in London.

It became the haunt of Teddy Boys proudly sporting their brothel creepers; Hungarian Revolutionaries who fled their country in '56 following the Russian invasion; theatre-goers and actors, who piled in from the Piccadilly Theatre after a show. Outside, Denman Street was full of ladies earning a living. It was a time full of bustle, excitement and the juke-box ­ the era of Guys and Dolls.

But it was also a violent time. Flick knifes. Razors concealed in collars. You wouldn't guess it now. It's pretty sedate. Tourists (though not as many since 9/11) sit beside the regulars: the buff man in leathers, the transvestite who's been coming here for 30 odd years, the old man reading the paper. These people have got stories to tell ­ it's written on their faces. And that's what this place is about. People.

You go there more than three times, they remember your face. Or, more importantly, they remember your drink. Mine's a milkshake. Vanilla. I love this place. Am I being nostalgic? Am I lusting after that era that we're so often told we've lost? A time when people had time for each other? A time of service?

Like hell, I am. This is real. I enjoy coming here. You do get service. You're welcomed and shown to your table. You're left alone to read your paper. And you don't get the eye because you're filling an all-important table. Plus you're not fleeced ­ after all, these places were built for the working class.

Yeah sure, in some places you still get this now, but you sure don't get this interior. And I don't buy that these places were the Starbucks of their day. OK, we're enjoying a coffee revolution right now (and we're paying the price, literally at three quid a cup and more broadly in terms of bland, corporate, multi-nationals sweeping our cities). So, what's it about? Familiarity? The safe buck? You know what you're getting with a Costa ­ and let's face it, more often than not, you know what you're getting at a caff!

But that ain't the point. Or rather it is. Lorenzo Marioni, the New Piccadilly's owner, gets it. He pushes me to forego my usual vanilla milkshake and plump for raspberry. It's got that sickly, sweet, seaside flavour ­ artificial, he grins.

This place is about the abandon of the Fifties ­ it didn't matter then how many 'E' numbers were in your milkshake. How dull that it seems to matter now.

It's pink. It tastes good. It's fake. Perfect.


I'd give anything... | Sunday Herald | 9 December 2001 | by Stuart Murdoch

I'm sitting in a modern Cafe, my coffee and my little muffin having come to about four quid. If I wanted something proper to eat, I couldn't really get it. I've got to queue for everything I want anyway. But if there is a degree of hate in my heart today please forgive me. It's because I am mourning the passing of a friend.

The Grosvenor Cafe, that much-loved institution in Glasgow's Ashton Lane, closed last month. I'm missing it already - and I've only just got over the hangover from the leaving do.

Normally my sore head would be caressed by the Cafe and the people that work there. The understanding, the empathy, the love. After 10 minutes I'd be ready for normal business; after 30, I'd be attacking The Herald crossword like a tiger cub attacking his mum - hopelessly, but with vigour.

the booths are gone...

When The Grosvenor closed, nobody knew what the plans for it were. The owners assured us that the new people were working to stay true to the essence of the place. But the booths are gone, languishing in bits somewhere in the south side. I know because my girlfriend asked one of the workmen. So the Cafe will become a stand-up trendy bar, and the trendies will soon be queuing up to fill the gap between Brel and Jinty's, and good luck to them all.

Every time Belle And Sebastian go away, something happens. It's not as if we go away all that often. We went to the US recently. Our first big trip for years. Our tour was from September 3 to September 16. Then we went to Brazil.

We happened to catch a CNN headline: 'Glasgow University buildings burn down. Million of pounds worth of damage'. And I'm thinking, God, you can't go away from Glasgow for five minutes without the University burning down.

When I came back, on the overnight train from London, I went straight to the cafe, and the next day it was gone. Most of the girls that work there spent their last day greeting onto their pads while they took the orders.

So this is my elegy for the Grosvenor Cafe. This is a wee memento, and perhaps not totally pointless for the people who have never been near the place.

Because everybody has their own Grosvenor to get over. And it exists in their mind and it is a very personal thing, and the roots can go deep.

fury and helplessness...

An illustration of that is the fury and helplessness people felt in the face of the closure of the Govanhill swimming pool. There are pools and parks and cinemas that disappear in this city every day. Green places and old places. Places that are just so right! That's the pity. Why change something when it is just so right?

Before it closed, a couple of the staff at The Grosvenor asked me: 'Why doesn't the group take over the caf?? You could afford it.'

Er, no we couldn't. But I pause to think about what would happen if we did. And I think it would be a disaster. Nobody would ever get fed for a start. There would be constant fights over the washing up.

The girls would rush to serve the good looking boys and the boys would rush to serve the good looking girls, and regular customers would be left to languish.

Even if there were a couple of organised little hipsters in this town who could get it together, it would be all wrong. You might try to preserve something just as it is, but it would be impossible.

Just by laying your hands on it, it would be different. The Cafe was perfect, just as the bandstand in Kelvingrove park is perfect, just as Govanhill Pool was perfect to its users. Hip youngsters, no matter their intention, would have turned the Cafe into a museum.

a place where stuff happens...

It would be an immediate pastiche. When we were on the outside looking in, the place was fabulous. We stuck by the place like zealots sticking by a lower-division football club. We saw it through the good times and the bad. Through all the bad-taste decor decisions and through heavy waitress anxiety. If we were running the place we would have too much taste to make the changes that continued to make the place great.

Like I say, everyone has his or her own Grosvenor Cafe. A place where stuff happens to them. Or just a place where they are content. A place for heart-to-hearts, or for secret rendezvous.

I've written songs in there, I met half the group in there. I've sat there the whole day laughing my head off, milking one cup of coffee. And I've cried into the sugar bowl. My life revolved around the place for a dozen years.

My girlfriend's got an alcove in her kitchen where she's going to put the Grosvenor booth. But it won't be the same.

Sunday Herald December 2001


Cafes Society | The Observer | 25 January 2004 | by Tamsin Blanchard NEW
Imagine if your favourite greasy spoon offered your full English breakfast served up on a silver salver; if the brown sauce came with its own shiny silver sleeve; or if your mug of tea came with a sterling-silver spoon for the sugar. The caff might need a couple of security guards on the door, but what a perfect place it would be.

The Golden Fry fish and chip shop, just across the road from the Observer's offices, and the Museum Street Cafe in Bloomsbury are both featured in Adrian Maddox's Classic Cafes (£19.99, Black Dog Publishing). They are part of a dying breed of restaurants where time has stood still for the best part of 50 years, formica gems that should be as much a part of our treasured heritage as the tobacco-stained sidewalk cafes of France. They certainly deserve a little silver - and some posh china - as a reward for all their hard work.

There's something delicious about the combination of a good old fry-up and the sort of dishes you imagine the Queen might eat her breakfast off (except, of course, we all know she favours Tupperware). Silver service is an old-fashioned idea. If you have family silver, surely you need a servant to polish it. You can't throw your silver plates into the dishwasher. It is part of a high-maintenance lifestyle that has long passed its sell-by date, along with freshly ironed linen sheets. But there is also something undeniably glamorous about a touch of silver on the table, even if it's just an eggcup or a teaspoon.

The London-based jeweller and silversmith Theo Fennell disagrees that silver is going out of fashion. He's on a mission to educate new generations about properly crafted silver. 'We've been incredibly cavalier in this country about defending ourselves as silversmiths,' he says. 'If we're not careful, we'll lose our great silversmiths.'

According to Fennell, the hand-made silver service has not completely died a death. He still receives orders for them, despite their £100,000 to £200,000 price tag. But he is quick to point out that it is possible to buy a piece of hand-made silver for under £100. He is a great advocate of giving everyday items a special silver sparkle; his collection includes beautifully engraved sleeves for HP Sauce, Tabasco, Gordons Gin and Haagen-Dazs ice-cream pots, as well as lids for Marmite and jam.

'It started with the tomato-ketchup sleeve,' he explains. He had a friend who was driven mad by the sight of a ketchup bottle on an otherwise exquisite dinner table. 'I made it as a joke,' he says. But for the joke to work, the sleeve had to be really well-crafted. Fennell says he is following in a tradition begun by the Georgians, who made silver for their spices, sauces, and salt and pepper. 'I liked the idea of mixing something expensive with something downmarket and mass-produced. And the ketchup bottle is such a beautifully designed thing.' They are all hand-made, hence the hefty price tags. But a silver sauce sleeve would certainly add a touch of class to your egg and chip supper.


Bring back the classic café | Teeside Evening Gazette | Aug 11 2004 NEW

Well, it's certainly good news that the Albert Park Clock is coming back home in all its Victorian glory.

Together with the revamped bandstand and the reclaimed fountain, the park will soon become a time capsule where if you shut your eyes, and try to block out the noise of the traffic, it is 1955, and God is still in his heaven.

This is where the Park Gate comes in.

Immediately outside the gate on Linthorpe Road was one of Middlesbrough's premier greasy spoons, a place where you could get everything from an all-day breakfast to a humble round of toast and tea.

Now that café, along with many others of its kind, has gone to the great trattoria in the sky.

Replacing them up and down the country are the new branded outfits - Starbucks, McDonalds, Costa Coffee.....

All of them share the same characteristics.

They are often very expensive. They are impersonal and simply have no soul.

Good old fashioned greasy spoons had common characteristics.

They sold fry-ups that would horrify today's food faddists. Their décor was - to say the least - eclectic.

The last refuge of genuine blue neon was the great British café.

It was such a café where the last sighting of the tomato shaped plastic sauce squeezer was made.

They were often managed by generations of a family from the Italian diaspora, presided over by a matriarch who kept a careful eye on her regulars from behind the chrome espresso machine.

Or, by a male restaurateur who saw the café as his living and his daytime social life rolled into one.

They engaged with their customers in a way no uniformed supervisor for one of the franchised coffee or burger clones could ever do.

They helped form popular culture.

I learnt to love Ska and Reggae because, as a kid, I frequented a rather seedy café run by a man called Ernie.

Though born and bred in the UK, he had come across that music in the Royal Navy in the Caribbean, and made sure his juke box matched his own tastes.

Such a man would struggle to survive in today's world.

There are thankfully some good old fashioned café's left.

But they are a vanishing breed.

So let us celebrate the survivors - like Grubb's Diner on Middlesbrough's Newport Road, opposite the bus station, an establishment that runs with seamless ease from breakfast through to lunch and full dinners. There is a similar café in Redcar's Corporation Road, near the junction with Station Road.

Stockton had a small number of good little Formica-tabled eateries on the twilight northern part of the High Street - and, as far as I know, they still survive.

But when you hit the shopping malls your only choice is chewing on pallid pap that costs a fortune and sustains you for all of four minutes.

Adrian Maddox, the author of a new book on the old greasy spoon - "Classic Cafes", puts it succinctly: "Orwell's nightmare vision of 1984 was a jackboot stamping on a human face for ever - but we now know the reality - that the future is now best represented by a boiling skinny latte spilt in the lap of humanity for perpetuity."

Here's tea in your eye !

Evening Gazette


Cafes | GRIND Magazine | Summer 2004 | by Rebecca Wood NEW

"People hate these places" Maddox waves a hand at The fading 50's décor of The New Piccadilly."People are actually repulsed by them. That in itself is partially what draws me to them."

The New Piccadilly is a little gem, lost in time. Not even all that little. I sat several hours in the place consuming average coffee and a chocolate milkshake (in the traditional 'happy days' stemmed glass) soaking in the dying atmosphere and observing. I was accompanied by slightly too loud radio talk back, mid day television on mute and of course Adrian Maddox, author of Classic Cafes. Several customers swagger in, at various times, regulars, yelling their orders towards the counter: beans, tea, chips, tea, lasagne, tea. A young couple rendezvous in the corner: mushrooms on toast, tea. The staff members are eager, but largely redundant.

'This will be gone soon' laments Maddox. 'They will all be gone in a few years'. He seems impassioned by the melancholy of it all. Drawn to the morbidity of these empty, dying cafés.

This seems to be so, but it is not their death that attracts Adrian, it is the thing it self. That is, the beauty if these aging time capsules. Adrian has strict criteria for just what makes a café 'classic'. It is the Formica tables, the vinyl floors, the espresso machines, the booth seating. He points out to me the curvy wooden chairs, chairs that, now that he mentions it, I have indeed seen one hundred times before. Chairs, he said, that when first produced in the late 1800's were avant-garde, risqué, really something completely different. Now of course they are shunned as old fashioned and replaced with lovely cheap plastic jobs or perhaps a couple of Ikea couches.

These café's are dying for so many reasons. The success of the monster that is 'the café chain' has upped rental prices, tipping many establishments over the edge. What were traditionally family run businesses have halted in the hands of aging proprietors, nearing retirement, their children wanting more than grease and Formica and tea.

And then of course, the customers too, are a dying breed. Young people shun that drab, dreary Britain that these faded facades encompass. They choose instead, ironically, the predictability of the chain, where they will be greeted day after day by Americanised gloss and a friendly "Latte, cappuccino, macchiato, espresso, frappaccino, mochccino or espresso con panna? Full fat, semi, skimmed? 'Regular, bucket or wheelbarrow? Have here or take away? Would you like fries with that?"

The 'classic café' encompasses what once was: values and aesthetics from a forgotten time and place. The 'chain', like it or not, does the same. Globalisation, commercialisation, mass consumption and the corporate dollar.

'These places (back to Maddox) were set up by individuals. They are from a time when individuals could really do something. A time when Britain was leading edge.' This is reflected too in British rock music which quite appropriately evolved from 50's 'skiffle' bands which hatched in the cafes of Soho: these very same cafés, in fact, that Adrian laments as they quietly disappear, or in most cases long ago dissapeared.

Now, he insists, Britain is in a state of rampant managed decline. Just look, he says, at the ongoing chaos of Britain's transport, health and education systems; and all the recent headlines which show fully 54% of the population would emigrate if they could.

The classic café is therefore about much more than a place to scoff beans and chips. It is a reflection of society as were the coffee houses of the 1700's. They were very much at the hub of London life. People would ask of a man's coffee house sooner than asking after his lodgings. They were where business was conducted, where friendships were forged, where politics was discussed, where ideas were born. Alas London's coffee houses of old too died a death. In the 19th century nostalgia grew for the coffee houses of the 18th century much as, I'm sure Adrian laments the caffs of the fifties.

Ebbs and flows. Things change. Be it driven by fashion, economics, consumerism or even conspiracy it matters not one iota, for the change itself is inevitable. Maddox knows this. That is why he is not campaigning that these cafes are turned into listed buildings, or, god forbid, museums, but rather he is raising awareness. Get out there, is his message. See these places. Appreciate them in their chipped laminated glory. And if there comes an almost cultish following of 'little Adrian's' seeking out these places, to chat, and sup and scoff then, at least they will have been appreciated in their final years, and at most, perhaps, a few more than anticipated will survive another generation.


Classic Cafes | Iain Sinclair interview

Classic Cafes | Quentin Reynolds interview

Classic Cafes | Mr Burkeman interview

Classic Cafes | Lorenzo Marioni interview

Classic Cafes | Adrian Maddox FT interview

Classic Cafes | Adrian Maddox Times interview

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