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 you can see many more have since closed down, overwhelmed by the big corporate chains like Starbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero! Support your independent Coffee Bar!!
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 avant-garde.
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.
Guardian: 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 http://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 Piccadilly Circus.
“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,” he says.
Start: south Marylebone High Street (Bond St tube/Baker St tube)
Golden Hind [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.
Paul Rothe & Son [35 Marylebone Lane W1]
Untouched, early twentieth century deli and old-fashioned provisions shopwith 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.)
Marylebone Cafe [58 Marylebone Lane W1]
Plain-style 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)
The Lucky 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.
Sandwich Bar [Brooks Mews W1] RIP
Hidden 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.)
Chalet Coffee 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.)
RIP/Site 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…
RIP/Site 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.)
Source Cafe [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.)
Cafe Rio [58 Brewer St W1]
Unremarkable modernised cafe, however a historic family archive is displayed on the walls.
The New 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.)
Lina Stores [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 Robinson)
RIP/Site 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 place the 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'”
RIP/Site of… Heaven and Hell coffee bar
Next door but one to the 2is. Another legendary 50s coffee bar.
Bar Italia [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 TV.
RIP/Site 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 and avant-gardism.”
Jimmy’s [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.”
A. Angelucci [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 Bar Italia.”
The Stockpot [18 Old Compton St W1]
Retains a late 1960s pine wood design feel.
Amalfi [29-31 Old Compton St W1] RIP Sep 05
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.)
RIP/Site 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…
RIP/Site 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”…
Algerian 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.”
RIP/Site of… Bunjies Coffee House & Folk Cellar [27 Litchfield Street WC2]
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.”
Trattoria 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.
Maison Bertaux [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.”
Lorelei [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.)
Bar Bruno [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 wall menus.
site 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.
site of … Tea Rooms [Museum Street W1]
British dinginess 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.)
site 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.)
Sidoli’s/Lino’s 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 throughout Britain.
Fish Bar & Kebab House [Whitfield Street W1] RIP
The main front-section is a standard fish bar, 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 wall plates.
site of … Tony’s [91 Charlotte Street W1]
The 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.
Perugino [Tottenham St W1]
Pleasant leatherette booth selection, and marble-top tables.
Finish: north Tottenham Court Road (Goodge Street tube)