Cafe Society, London Style
They always say you don’t know what makes a city special until it’s not there anymore, and in London, cafe society has a very different meaning. There’s one on every high street, and they all have the same menu. I’m not talking about funky cafes like the J&A, Apres Food or the Modern Society, or even rediscovered traditional ones like E. Pellicci.
The real cafes are barely noticed; they’re usually Greek Cypriot or Turkish-owned or still Italian, and always serve liver & bacon, varieties of eggs, tea in mugs and a lot of sausages. They’re used by workmen first thing, then retired people reading papers, students and mums, and close for the day shortly after lunch. I had one near me called the Cappannina Cafe, which led to me entering and asking, ‘Pardon me sir, is this the Cappannina Cafe?’ a joke that grew old fast.
These are London’s greasy spoons, and now they’re disappearing due to hiked rents. Some have reinvented themselves – my local one still looks like a greasy spoon but serves a better eggs benedict than most hotels. They proliferate around railway stations but, mindful of having once had there reputation of catering to the working class (horrors!) most have upped there stakes on their menus. Then there’s Nivens, near me, a terrific cafe with just one big table, around which you sit and chat with strangers over the homemade jams. But it still has killer sausages.
The Quality Chop House was transformed long ago (about the time it appeared in Conde Nast Traveller) into an upmarket restaurant serving fine food, although it retained its uncomfortable and alarmingly narrow pew seats. The 1920s sign etched into their glass reads ‘Progressive Working Class Caterers’, and this is how many WWII US soldiers remember London, and why it once had a reputation for bad food. Those days are long gone.
Some are well-hidden secrets. When I was recording the audio book for ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ I was taken to the Vinyl Cafe, which no-one could ever accidentally stumble across. It exists solely for the use of the music industry – the creatives who work in the studios set around its dead-end location, but it’s one of the coolest cafes in town. The key to the existence of such places was once the provision of food as a necessity, not a luxury. They were there because there was nowhere else.
The cafes have another use – they’re hangover joints, when the only thing that will fix an all-night bender or a pub crawl the night before is a carb-laden Double EB, Fried Slice, Beans, Cup of Rosie. And like the venerable London pub they’re vanishing, being forced out by junk food takeaways like McDonald’s and Burger King.
One of the main differences is the way in which the original cafes fit local communities. Their exteriors are washed and their pavements are cleaned, whereas on a Sunday morning my street is filled with the detritus of the local McDonald’s, which is open 24 hours and attracts drug dealers.
So is this a lament for lost cafes? They cling on tenaciously, but like the backstreet boozer, they’re on the critical list right now.