Cafe Society, London Style

London

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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.

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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.

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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.quality-chop-house-secret-london-restaurants-condenasttraveller-5-16dec13-james-bedford_b_646x430

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.

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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.

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14 comments on “Cafe Society, London Style”

  1. Martin Tolley says:

    There’s a good site http://www.soundsurvey.org.uk/index.php/projects/london-cafes/introduction with photos from nearly 20 years ago which gives some more examples.
    When I was a student in Glasgow in the mid 1970s there were similarly many of these havens – usually narrow shoe-boxes with little wooden pews, mostly run by thin Italian men with white aprons who did exactly as they were told by larger homely women-folk who did the cooking. Lasagne (always with chips). Ice cream and my first experience of real coffee.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    It was about 30 years ago now that a writer-Keith Waterhouse?-said there was now nowhere left in the West End where on could buy a poached egg on toast.

    When I moved to London in 1971 there were still Italian run cafes that did greasy spoon British meals. There was one by the Piccadilly Theatre, one in Villiers St and one at the side of the Dominion Theatre by that fantastic film book shop-now also gone. That’s just 3. Then there was the very popular Stock Pot in Panton St opposite the Comedy Theatre which did very good cheap meals. They had a branch in Kensington (I think it was there) and one somewhere else. Knightsbridge? (For the anorak, Kensington has 6 consonants in a row, unusual in English but not unique)

    There was also one in Kings Cross at the back of the Scala-next to the Thames Link-The “Modern” which was anything but, great for a plate of cholesterol and a mug of builders.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    Did you all spot my deliberate mistake? Knightsbridge has 6 consonants in a row, not Kensington. I must remember to check before I post, and not after.

  4. Bill says:

    Thank you for the clarification. I was starting to get a bit nutty trying to figure out why I couldn’t get it.

  5. Martin Tolley says:

    For those losing the will to live – ALDWYCH has 6 consonants in a row too. Off to bed now.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Martin, the Y in Aldwych is a vowel, isn’t it? Hope you had a nice rest and yes, I was beginning to wonder if I was stupider than usual with the Knightsbridge/Kensington poser.
    If people frequent these cafes they will stay unless the rents go out of sight. Don’t eat at those foreign fast almost-food places. On the other hand, a regular diet of that plate of food above will play havoc with heart, weight and general health. Simple food, simply prepared and reasonably priced should be easily obtained. Why isn’t it?

  7. Bill says:

    Near to where I live is the lovely little Hudson River town of Piermont, NY. Once a largely blue-collar factory town which, over decades, attracted a quiet rich population who hunkered down amid the originals. Over time, restaurants popped up. Antique shops, too, though they bit the dust twenty years ago.

    Anyway, yesterday I saw an old lady with the requisite shopping cart moving along the road. Where is she going, I wondered. What’s left for her?

    For years, there had been a market store; probably the last one there was the most reincarnation of many, going back a hundred years. What’s coming in?

    THE COMMUNITY STORE- YOUR PLACE FOR GOURMET FOODS!!!

    Hope it fails. Bring back the f*ck*ng ordinary. I’m tired of middle class people being candy *ss*d catered to as though they weren’t middle class.

  8. Brian Evans says:

    Actually the Knightsbridge question is a bit of a cheat, as it’s 2 words joined together.

  9. Jan says:

    Bill that catering for the middle classes is the primary economic engine being relied on to refloat to reinstate as “acceptable addresses” many inner city neighbourhoods of both suburban London and many other British cities. Its a double pronged attack private individuals buying houses to do up along with smaller companies doing the same on a piecemeal basis and major developers building large swish projects. Put this alongside local authorities housing tenants into poorer towns well away from London and a another decade or so will see it becoming a very different place. Same probably for Leeds, Edinburgh and Manchester.

    I’ve got no opinion on this really but it speeds up the pace of change. Maybe it makes for much less interest in and fondness for the curiosities and little parks, business and places that make
    a neighbourhood special to its residents. If you’re not really born and brought up in a place
    or its not your adopted long term residence do you ever really care about it deeply?

  10. Bill says:

    Decades ago I overheard a man complaining that his rent went up to $600.00 a month, and he and his family would have to relocate. This was in the East Village, NYC. Around that time I took a walk with a fellow through said neighborhood; he claimed the East Village would be the next Soho (ours, not yours), which, I guess, was the first gentrified NYC neighborhood. I was amazed; what was there in the East Village that could possibly appeal to the rich? Well, now it’s for the rich. A nearby neighborhood, Alphabet City, is now the most expensive place to live in Manhattan. Forty years ago it was the most violent place in Manhattan. And where do the people we need to run a city live? Shop assistants? Waiters? Utility workers? In another city?

    If my government had looked after all segments of society and had actively worked to bringing the poor into the middle class, neighborhoods would not have become dangerous places that needed gentrification. Generations of poor and working class people would not have been squeezed out: but, no, that would mean the people in charge would have had to disabuse themselves of their racist and classist attitudes.

    Sorry for the ***!! of my previous post, I was annoyed.

  11. Marc says:

    Terry’s Cafe in Southwark is an excellent example of a ‘posh’ greasy spoon. Its food is excellent (the posh eggs on toast – duck eggs on bloomer – are superb), yet it hasn’t lost touch with its core market.

  12. Jan says:

    The “Quality Chop house” is on Farringdon Road isn’t it? I’ve not toddled round there since the mid 1990s when the place seemed to be be very much frequented by black cabbies. Black cab men are like old people THEY KNOW WHERE TO EAT of they choose somewhere other than their own little green shelters you know it must be decent grub.

    Condensed Nasty travellers award eh? Who would have thought it. Yes I know the predictive text has just hiccupped but it seems such an appropriate comment on this gourmet garland i thought I’d stick with it! I loved the etched glass on the Windows there at the Quality Chop shop. Didn’t some radical communist bloke during his stay in London famously eat there? I know some very famous Russian communist guy lived in Percy Circus just down the road from you Mr F there’s a blue plaque there will say who he is. Will check my records and get back.

    Think you have it absolutely spot on with what you are saying Bill. Cities are squeezing out the poorer residents the firemen the bobbies (policemen to you sir) nurses, shopkeepers, local authority employees and hospital ancillary staff. Now if they aren’t in some form of tied accommodation or housing association property these people live way way out in the sticks.

    They aspire to buy the sort of houses much derided by the upper middle classes as being too small, too dark, too cramped. A sort of perfect storm is building, aided by local authority plans to get the poorer worker out of the capital…but how will the city then function? Lord knows but one things for sure it won’t be short of cappuccinos. Providing the barista can get a train in from Thanet.

  13. Jan says:

    1st paragraph of should be if
    3rd paragraph shopkeepers should be,shop workers

    Lenin lived in Percy Circus same sort of time Marx was kicking round Soho.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Why is it that we can see quite clearly where the problems lie and can predict what will happen if nothing changes but the people who could actually do something either can’t or won’t? I’ve asked this before and no one ever answers. They can’t all not care a farthing for all the disadvantaged people – all of whom have votes these days.

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