Reviews #3: Side Orders - further classic cafes
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John's: Mortimer Street W1

These are the best of the classic cafes left standing largely unharmed in London. Note that most keep odd early closing times at the weekends - and often during the week for that matter. Few open more than a couple of hours on Saturdays. In the long-term all are under threat. Catch 'em now whilst they're still standing.

Click here > for an at-a-glance Top Ten cafe guide.
Click here > for Central London establishments.
Click here > for the abbreviated No. 8 bus London Caff Tour.

Also, here's the full unexpurgated Central London Cafe Tour that was put together for Architecture Week 17-26 June 2005...

Bar Central ceiling detail, Bernard St WC1


Peterborough Cafe [Peterborough Road, Parson's Green SW6] NEW
'Situated in a chi-chi part of Parson's Green yards from the UK headquarters of Starbucks it resembles a transport cafe - which must seriously annoy most of the locals! Internally the place has some old-style features such as the grey and white Formica-topped tables, old wooden chairs with leatherette seat-covering, and pine-effect wall-panelling. The counter has a small glass display, and there's a original caff hot-water dispenser. The net curtains, ceiling-fan and menu-display handwritten in felt-tip pen complete the scene. Fight fans will appreciate the display of early to mid 80's boxing match posters.' (Patrick Turland)

Double 7 Cafe [Oxford Road near Upper Richmond Road SW15] NEW
'Near Pete's Mini- Bar... been here since the mid 60's at least and used to be the stables for the building now housing Domino Pizza! It has a great plastic external sign saying Transport Cafe which looks like a 60s original. Internally, the wooden panelling of the former stable is still discernable. Seating is provided by what looks like wooden Thonet chairs, painted red. The tables are of a fairly recent pine type, covered with plastic red and white check table cloths. Net curtains complete the feeling of a snug bolt-hole. Opening hours are 7am-2pm, Monday to Friday, 8pm to 2pm on Saturday. Cheap all day breakfasts are a speciality... "(Patrick Turland)

Pete's Mini Bar [Upper Richmond Road SW15] NEW
'Yellow Formica, classic seating... come out of East Putney Tube, turn left and walk 50
yards, it's across the road on the right. I love the place.' (Anthony Abdool) "Anyone interested in visiting Pete's should get there double pronto. A Caffe Nero opened up a few yards away in October. This probably undermined trade to a degree, but to add insult to injury, a branch of Subway, the god awful, American sandwich-chain, opened next to Caffe Nero, just before Xmas. I can't see how Pete's can survive for long against the forces of homogenisation. Hopefully, the Double 7 Cafe round the corner in Oxford Road, can withstand the corporate onslaught, but I wouldn't bet on it." (Patrick Turland)

Cable Cafe & Snack Bar [Brixton Road near Prima Road SW9] NEW
'A classic, traditional Italian-owned cafe in one of South London's grittier neighbourhoods. Black leatherette settee-style seats, worn Formica-topped tables, Formica wall-panelling. A Formica-topped counter (with pine-effect front) plus traditional glass display cabinet. Wooden slat false-ceiling. An original mosaic-tiled shop front, old Pepsi sign, net curtains and Drury tea sign. The impressive reproduction Victorian wall-mural is a feast for the eyes. Also: colour photos of Italian landscapes, signed photos of Victoria Wood, Warren Mitchell (as Alf Garnett), and one of The Bill detectives!' (Patrick Turland)

Barney's Cafe [Coldharbour Lane near Loughborough Road SW9] NEW
'For die-hard, classic-caff enthusiasts only, being located in what was, until recently, one of the UK's most violent neighbourhoods. The owner, an amiable Italian lady, stoically informed me that: "I've been here 36 years, it's not so bad now". This austere, utilitarian place sports a faded Pepsi sign and net curtains. Seating is provided by a mixture of metal tubular-frame and wooden-seat chairs, reminiscent of 1960's ILEA classroom-furniture, a more aesthetically pleasing couple of Thonet-style chairs, and an old window bench-seat covered with frazzled caramel-coloured leatherette. The wooden tables are topped with worn beige Formica, save for the sole red Formica table next to the Formica counter. The small glass counter-display, handwritten menu and metal hot-water spout complete the ensemble. A souvenir life-belt bearing the legend Barny's Cafe Iberia 1961 might be a clue as to the caff's history.' (Patrick Turland)

Tonibell Snack Bar/Ice Cream Bar [35 Shenley Road, Borehamwood WD6] NEW
Mr Seb Brennan writes: "It's about 100 yds from Elstree and Borehamwood station and is a cracker. All that's left of their 1950s cornet-based empire is this double fronted cafe on Shenley Road: nice facia, leatherette banquettes. Maybe when it gets knocked down to make way for a Chicken Cottage the nice people at BBC Elstree can cart the remains round the corner and re-erect it in Walford." Tonibell was started in 1937 by Italian-born Toni Pignatelli and his Scottish wife. Known as Tonis, it consisted of a small ice-cream manufacturing plant in a shop in High Street, Burnt Oak, Middlesex. The products were sold to the public from the shop window. Twelve years later the couple's son Ronald, who had changed his name to Peters, joined the business. The name Tonis was changed to Tonibell in 1960 because competitors began using Tonis name and colours. All vehicles were painted blue, and Tonibell's cow symbol made its debut with a new jingle that was specially written for the chimes. In 1969, when Lyons bought the company, Tonibell had eighteen depots and four franchise depots covering the whole country. The business was, essentially a franchise operation and 500 vans were involved in taking ice-cream to housing estates and other high density areas. In addition they had 15 ice-cream parlours, mainly in the London area, and again operated under franchise arrangements.

Frank's [Uxbridge Metropolitan Line tube station] NEW
'Frank's has been owned for almost 40 years by Frank and Ganni Costa. Refurbished in the 60s, it looks its best in the early morning, as sunlight filters in through the high windows, illuminating the rising cigarette smoke. The cafe retains its ranks of Formica tables and red leatherette chairs but resist the temptation to follow the smoke up to the refurbished ceiling - the cafe's principal architectural abomination. Frank's offers both authentic workman's cafe food as well as some more distinctively Italian items and, overall, represents a refreshing antidote to the town's otherwise soulless, aspirational makeover.' (Jonathan Hourigan) ... 'a great example of inter-war LT architecture. This is a fantastic place, with all the feel of a great local cafe. Looks like it was refitted in the 80s, rather than the 60s. It's part of a small chain of Frank's, with branches in Great Titchfield St and Mortimer St. The Uxbridge branch has similar marble-effect wall tiling to its two central London cousins, and a good set of red-leatherette seats, on metal-frames with attached tables. Seats probably date from a later period than the 50s or 60s; tables look 80s in style. The wooden doors look seem to date from an earlier period.' (Patrick Turland)

Bar Linda [Golders Green station NW11. NEW
"a bright, busy mod/espresso type of place, watch the Routemasters chugging off up west from canary yellow Formica counter..." (Antony Turton)

Dug Out, St. Albans Lane NW11] NEW
Famous bikers' hangout thru the 50s. One of the most hidden away obscure cafes in London. Still has some original fittings, and plenty of grimy atmosphere.

The Bonbonniere [Woodstock Street W1] NEW
Exceedingly central (just opposite Debenhams) this has a somewhat offputting neon sign but the interior has the feel of some sort of large Sorrentine ice-cream parlour with a big tiled sea-faring mural at the very back of a sizeable floorspace. More of a restaurant than cafe, it's really the spaciousness and seried ranks of nut brown tables and chairs (and pretty wall lamps) which make the Bonbonniere such a comfort zone. There's a touch of the curtain-twitchers about this one which we like, but a draconian 'minimum charge' policy and punitive 'no cheques or credit card payments under £10' rule puts it beyond the true caff pale. A pity - this place has real potential and a sense of history. (A pleasing sister eaterie used to exist many years ago in Carnaby Street, but has since been brutally Starbucked.)

Andrew's [Hackney Road E2] NEW
'An austere plain-style cafe, with what looks like an original wooden blue-painted fascia/signboard with white lettering. Wooden chairs with leatherette seat covering, wooden Formica-topped tables, pinewood-effect wall panelling. There's a Formica-topped counter, and old-style hot-water dispenser. The brown and dun floor tiles, and cream and brown-mottled lino look original. The blue-painted wooden shelves are an interesting feature. Unfortunately, judging by the sparse lunchtime trade, this cafe looks like it's on a downward slide to extinction.' (Patrick Turland)

Bar Central [4 Bernard St WC1] NEW
Almost next to Russell Sq tube this quality caff is joined to a pleasant old trattoria and looks as though it's part of the same business. A pleasing exterior gives little indication of the magnificent suspended moderne ceiling work here which is reminiscent of the Morelli in Broadstairs. Six good leatherette booths make up the seating, and the counter gubbins easily passes muster. A smart little local place, off the beaten track but handy for the Renoir art cinema and Skoob books in the brutalist maze of the Russell flat complex opposite. Incidentally, what was once a fine and extensive caramel covered burger joint in the complex has now vanished and the odd kebab house with a vaguely LA diner interior adjacent to the cinema has now also been comprehensively refitted and ruined though some attractive seating remains. Quite close by is one of the most amazing and expansive deco buildings in London - once a garage and now the headquarters of a London ad agency.

Little Kitchen [Lendal Terrace SW4] NEW
The cafe Bob and Pete from St Etienne used to go to en route to their studio circa '91. On Lendal Terrace under the railway arches: faded Pepsi sign; giant sixties "cute kids" murals on the back walls; old red plastic sign above the counter featuring a dinky chef graphic; decent pendant lighting, wooded walls and rows of scruffy leatherette booths and good Formica tables. Always ho, steamy and packed to the gills. Probably the best railway arch caff left in London. Incredibly cheap prices too.

Mario's [Clapham High Street SW4]
Little corridor cafe with excellent Formica purple/brown tables.

Mama's [Waterloo Rd SE1] RIP
On the main road at the Elephant & Castle end of Waterloo Rd. Great little find with interesting grey high backed booths, good counter and authentic layout. Unusual formica tables. A very useful local cafe.

Maria's [Grafton Way W1] RIP
A highly appreciated find in the ever-interesting Fitzrovia area behind Warren St. This has a truly sumptuous orange and yellow vitrolite exterior with deco metal trimming all over! A total seaside surprise sitting on a dusty corner. Within - despite the small space - there are two good gingham covered tables and excellent minimalist 60s leatherette & metal chairs - and some lesser stools hanging along the windows. A chalet style beamed ceiling finishes off the package with great aplomb. Large menus hang everywhere and the place is bursting with Italian vivacity. The sign above the awnings is a trusty Helvetica job but for the breezy frontage alone this has go to be worth patronizing on a regular basis. A really splendid bijou local caff. Every godawful new 'Benjys' sandwich bar should be forced to model itself on Maria's and then London could hold its head high!

Anwar's [Grafton Way W1] RIP 2002
Right next to Maria's is this great, dowdy Indian restaurant/cafe full of cod asiatic-exotica, worn tables [and staff!] with big lush rainforest-sized plants filling the windows. With its canteen feel, the Anwar scores in the open-late-7-days-a-week department and also in the moribund interior stakes. Take your own drink. Very good indeed.

Chalet [Maddox St W1]

This superb little place is kitted out in high Swiss style, rather like the Lucky Spot near Selfridges. This place however is a real, authentic West End coffee-bar from the espresso heydays of 1950s. Once, this interior style must have been all the rage as Alpine exotica swept over Britain (see also the St Moritz Wardour St and The Tiroler Hut in Westbourne Grove.) The Chalet has an upstairs coffee lounge with lots of polished brown panelling, fancy ironwork lighting and pricey refreshments. But don't miss the basement Italian restaurant at the back: more pew-bench seating and a cosy swathe of timber wall fixtures. The wistful, almost hand-drawn, exterior sign is a nice touch too. Check the beautiful row of chalet-lamps hanging in the doorway too.

Tasty Cafe [St John St EC1] NEW
Useful little place just off Smithfield market quite close to Butts' cafe. Great awning and exterior full of fine brown chairs and unspectacular tables. Lots of dark formica lower-wall surrounds but rather spoilt by chintzy ceiling cornice border prints and nasty revolving fans. An interesting crop of pix and photos on the walls with a smattering of Italian tourist posters - always a good sign. A good stablemate with Beppe's gaffe just across the market square.

Roman Fish Bar [Roman Rd E2] NEW
Good looking chippy with powder blue formica counter and odd orange high-back pew booths for launching into the fish suppers. Nice fish motif on the signeage. Situated at the Bethnal Green end of 'the roman' opposite an extensive hell-hole estate, there are a number of useful little shops dotted around that look relatively unscathed. Eyecatching electrical firm 'Humphrey's Repairs' has premises close by and there is a good pie n' mash shop nearby on the other side of the road. [Don't miss the amazing Bethnal green library by the tube - a Victorian cracker.]

John's Sandwich Bar [Mortimer St W1] NEW
Just when you think you've spotted them all another little place leaps out at you. Initially this seems like just another crap Soho-fringes sandwich bar but look in closer - the menu looks good, the sign is inviting and there's a cluster of frayed booth seats at the back. Hoorah! Inside we find an unusual dark patterned counter, odd hessian wall coverings, top service in crypto Italiano/cod-Spanish, interesting false ceiling units and - for the caff anoraks - the very same elegant patterned cup n' saucer sets as the mighty Alpino, except in light green rather than dark plum. Ungawa! A welcome space in this welcome little area away from the main tourist drag. Old Fitzrovia still has some surprises. "John's has been here as long as I can remember. It has seen off many a pretender on the corner of Mortimer Street. Obviously the two helpers (John is the amiable plump looking fella) weren't up to their womanzing ways when you were in there. If only I had their chat up lines. 'Whatta you wan' blondie', is one of their many gems. They also say comic things like (and I've heard this in many Italian cafes) '£5 cash for the full English'. It's bloody marvellous they have stayed the course as nearby Charlotte Street is full of wanky Starbucks and Soup Kitchens frequented by twat media types gabbing into their Nokios. You do really use the will to live when you see what they are doing to a marvellous place like Fitzrovia. The late Julian Macclaren-Ross would be spiralling down to the Antipodies if he knew." (David Fogarty)

Maison Bertaux [Greek Street W1]
130 year old patisserie cum cafe with a rickety upstairs room that looks like an old dairy annex: wood seats and tables and a delightful selection of cakes and pastries. Unpretentious and authentic little patisserie sited between a strip club and an old pub. A simple interior and rudimentary Lincrusta-lined decor lends it a traditional French charm and paysan appeal. The window is impeccably adorned with glorious freshly made gateaux, flans, patisseries and delicate confiseries. It has the appearance of a totally authentic French patisserie and there is certainly nothing false about the freshly made cream cakes or the rather eccentric and incredibly camp staff. "I like Maison Bertaux because it's not a chain, and it's nice and scruffy. You need a degree of grubbiness in a good cafe. I go to places like this when I haven't had breakfast, I've forgotten lunch, it's nearly dinnertime and I am about to fall over because my blood sugar is down to my knees. Whenever there has been some kind of temperance movement, there's been tearooms. Kate Cranston had the Willow Tea Rooms, which were designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but that scene died out... This is a proper old-fashioned cafe... I used to hang out with loads of people who didn't have jobs, so we nursed the routine." (A L Kennedy, Observer, March 13 2005)

Vukelic [Uxbridge Rd W12] RIP 2000
Possibly the most abject eaterie in the capital [though there is a steak house in Camberwell in which no customers have ever been sighted over a ten year period.] Just down from the Empire, Vukelic is so run down from the outside you think it must be a slum or bomb damaged. Only the filthy menu stuck behind a greasy window gives the game away. Inside this cavernous place are seried rows of white 70s chairs and tables and the most dismal air. Two ladies manage the space and no-one ever enters. The author once ordered a soup just for the isolationist frisson of being able to boast entry, but the overwhelming sadness of the place seeps into you. The decay and anomie are tangible. Vukelic is like some sort of refugee centre in a bombed out Polish suburb or a hell-hole Bratislavan Communist refectory. Gormenghast for gourmands. Encounter at your peril.

Scoff's Eating House [Kensington High Street W8] NEW
A chalet-special that's pretty well exactly as it was twenty five years ago. Low-lit, ranged around with cod-Italiana, rows of cramped brown tables and chairs and with the emphasis on a family trattoria feel.


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