London's Greatest Vintage Formica Cafes

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Railway Cafe, formerly under the east side of St Pancras station (deceased)

Classic Cafes is a seriously sentimental celebration of the 'classic' Italian-styled Formica cafe/coffee bar dating from the early and middle part of the 20th century. Places that cultural critic Richard Hoggart described as: "full of corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions... a sort of spiritual dry-rot amid the odour of boiled milk." (The Uses of Literacy, Chatto & Windus, 1957)



Classic Cafes: In A Nutshell

"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)

Though the French café and US diner have both received substantial attention over the decades, the classic Italian-run Formica cafes of the 1950s have never been given their due - despite their manifest contribution to the (sub)cultural life of post war Britain.

Within a decade of the first Soho espresso bar, The Moka at 29 Frith Street, being opened in 1953 (a model for classic Formica cafes to come) London became the world's hippest city: a ferment of music, fashion, film, photography, sex, crime, scandal and avant-gardism.

The mix of cafes, a nascent TV and advertising industry and the skiffle cult effectively created a new world order with Britain dictating popular culture to the globe. The cafes were the creative enclaves where it was all forged.

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 - and earlier - added an impassioned colour to Britain's post war social, artistic and commercial scene. Most are now vanishing in a welter of redevelopment and refits.

But once, their of-the-moment design and mass youth appeal galvanised post war British cultural life and incubated a whole post war generation of writers, artists, musicians and sexual interlopers.

The loss of classic cafes should be particularly sadly felt: the fact that from 1963-1967 London effectively dictated youth culture to the rest of the world can be traced back directly to the activities in the cafes of the 1950s.

They 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.

More > Defining the Classic Cafe


Classic Cafes: Under Threat

The big coffee corporations won't rest until every British high street is turned into a branded mall pushing their wares.

This brutal Starbucking of our towns is leading to the wholesale erasure of British vernacular retail architecture.

Old classic cafes - those unchanged vintage British working men's Formica caffs which retain most of their mid-century fixtures and fittings - are particularly badly hit by this avalanche of homogenisation. And the pace of wipeout is accelerating by the month.

The flooding of high streets with coffee outlets isn't simply natural economic change ­ it's a planned programme of extinction: the corporates negotiate exorbitant leases, raise 'comparables' (local rent levels used to calculate rent increases) and then put competitors out of business.

They have massive leverage: huge marketing budgets, extensive political contacts, unlimited resources. And they use them mercilessly.

This gives them a blatantly unfair economic advantage over local shops and services. (For one Leicester Square rental alone Starbucks paid £1.5m. And they will often run expensive sites at a loss to squeeze out opposition.)

Most insidiously, coffeeshop culture is a form of Identity Marketing: the appropriation of next-generation consumers through the targeting of 'progressive' agendas and youth markets.

The corporates create 'lifestyle options', engineer 'buy in', funnel consumers in and then close down the competition.

The flooding of towns with coffee shops is key to this Identity Marketing. The fall out is retail blandness across the high street.

Almost as bad is the accompanying cold, dead brand-speak that counsels: 'Exceed expectations; Have strong values; Reach out to communities' even as it negotiates the rent-rises that will level them.

For their far-reaching impact on modern Britain, we owe our grand old cafes an immense debt of gratitude. And a serious duty of care.

Keep 'em Classic. Kick out the Clones!

"Landlords now set such astronomical rents that only multinationals can afford them. But two of the country's richest landowners actively discriminate against the corporates. The Mercers Company, one of London's biggest landlords (it has owned much of Covent Garden and eight acres of the City since the 16th century), forbids chain stores on its streets. It is wooing independent shops by offering them incentives, such as a 15% rent reduction. "If we allow Covent Garden to be another high street, we would be competing with every other street in Britain" Michael Soames, the company's surveyor, said recently.

Howard De Walden, the estate that owns much of London's Marylebone, is also spurning the chains. Andrew Ashenden, De Walden's chief executive, has accused councils of ruining their high streets by favouring the highest bidder and not promoting individuality: "The multiples have become so dominant that they have ruined the high streets and taken away their character," he says. "The high street should be a mix and that is something that most local authorities ignore."

Ashenden has also criticised greedy landlords: "They want the strongest covenant and the highest rent, they want instant results and there's no vision. What they fail to realise is that an old-fashioned butcher is a very attractive tenant these days... the big landowners are in a position to change things... we have the power to make landlords and councils see sense, by voting with our feet and purses... if this country's increasingly dreary high streets want to survive, they, and everyone associated with them, need to change tack, pronto, before it's too late." (India Knight, Sunday Times October 17, 2004)

More > Save our Classic Cafes


Classic Cafes: Manifesto

Often dismissed as 'greasy spoons', Classic Cafes (as we prefer to call them) are actually mini-masterpieces of vernacular 1950s & 1960s design. This site is devoted to building awareness of these special spaces and recognizing their odd charm.

In an era of retro-kitsch, inert 'theme' brasseries and fast-breeder US coffee-chains, Classic Cafes retain a quintessential English drabness and individuality. A lost quality of contemporary utilitarian minimalism which marks them out as design gems.

The Parisian cafe is justly held in high esteem with a proud history of intellectual activity. So too the US diner with its background of candy colorized streamlined Americana! But the authentic British cafe offers its own discrete pleasures and a secret history on the margins of English social movements.

From Billy Liar to Brief Encounter, the classic 1950s & 1960s cafe/coffee bar was a vital part of popular culture in Britain. Full of dreamers, schemers and social outcasts reliving better times, the cafe in modern British literature and art is a place of disaffection and alienation but also creativity, romance and bohemianism... This Cafe of dreams embodies a culture of contentment seemingly long gone.

Classic Cafes champions the faded, yet somehow still vivid, attractions of the authentic greasy spoon, documenting an institution perilously close to vanishing altogether...

Classic Cafes upholds the evocation, protection and celebration of cafe-style and charisma. The dormant charms and warm atmospheres - the fug and food! A little English allure which speak volumes about a national confidence dating from the 1950s...

Classic Cafes cherishes the preservation and upholding of all the minutiae of...formica signs; tables; mosaics; ceilings; Gaggia machines; light fittings; booths; banquettes; chairs; cutlery; coathangers; cruet; plates; saucers; cups; knives & forks...

Classic Cafes values the warm, family-centred nature of these places. And especially celebrates the spectrum of huddled cafe misfits and outsiders: lapsed psychotics; sundry recovering nutters; tensed pensioners; tabloided builders; strapped actors; PC powered SWP gangs...

Classic Cafes extols the remarkable therapeutic function of the cafe - an oasis of drab British peace and repose in a power-crazed, craze powered metropolis...

It is to these superb lost, forgotten and unloved enclaves that this site - and the accompanying book - is respectfully dedicated.

More > In Search of Classic Cafes


Cafe Ambience

A booth, a menu, some period lightfittings, old style cups n' saucers, peg-board menus, display cases full of curling sandwiches, serving hatches, dumb-waiters, lopsided mirrors, chequer-board floor tiling... there's something about the prospect of worn leatherette seating, a bustling counter and a window onto the world that makes the cafe the complete comfort experience. Snug, warm, coddled - entering a newly discovered classic cafe is like entering a Formica clad floatation tank. Rest, respite and reflection are all sure Proustian triggers. For best effect, a cool autumn day alternating between drizzle and second-hand English sunshine is the perfect setting for a late morning caff sojourn... and plenty of Dudley Moore Trio burns playing on the iPod.

Classic Cafes | Iain Sinclair interview

Classic Cafes | Quentin Reynolds interview

Classic Cafes | Mr Burkeman interview

Classic Cafes | Pellicci interview [ES magazine]

Classic Cafes | Lorenzo Marioni interview

Classic Cafes | Adrian Maddox interview





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