Creating Classic Cafes

Reviews #1
Reviews #2
Reviews #3
Lost Cafes
Seaside Cafes
TV & Film
Top 10

Site News

Alpino, Chapel Market N1

Today, you have to look harder than ever to find decent, intact classic cafes. The daddy of them all, The New Piccadilly in Denman Street W1 - a cathedral among caffs - has retained its superb aspect on the hinterlands of Soho since 1951. "I've been here fifty years," says proprietor Lorenzo Marioni, "and apart from when I was in the army, I've been here on this street every day of my life... I'm the last one on the ship."

Cafes like The New Piccadilly, that survived the culls of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, should be designated national treasures. Go there immediately to see all the 'classic' elements below still in place...


Large, bold with a jolly font and preferably grubby with a serious lack of maintenance is best. We once would have recommended the 'Monaco' as a good example [now demolished] but the interior signs of the 'Regent Snack Bar' and 'The New Piccadilly' are hard to beat. The 'Rendez-Vous' is also smart. Ideally the sign is angled at 90 degrees to the front so as to draw the eye in down some lost back alley. The sight of a fine sign at 50 paces is a pulse racer and no mistake.


Doors & Windows
The lost art of continental styling is what we're after here. Good rosewood, possibly also etched glass like 'The Quality Chop House.' A deco or utility style piece of ironwork is most welcoming.


Occasionally a fine steel example can be noted. For maximum effect the shape should be of a kind impossible to find in a contemporary ironmongers.

For left-alone 50s & 60s light fittings the Monaco was king on Great Russell street, but now it's demolished other must-sees include: Victoria's Fiesta; Islington's Alpino; Picollo in the City; Mayfair's Chalet... The Copper Grill had an odd variety of Swiss lights in the main window that were replicated in the old Parma caff on Seymour Place. New Piccadilly has superb Festival of Britain light fittings which are unique. On no account miss the mesmeric light display that makes the ceiling of the Dante (RIP) such a blaze of orange Formica. Probably a good idea to check the Vitrolite ceiling at the River Cafe in Putney Bridge too for some context...

Tables & Chairs
Chairs must be wooden or of some equally pleasing steel or aluminium variant. And yes, we do want them of vintage 50s stock whenever possible. They should also be moveable. Tables should be Formica clad [everything should be Formica clad!] with a subdued abstract pattern worn and thin from years of loving mug nudging. Chairs should positively clatter.

Leatherette Booths
This is asking a lot but in Europe these booths are quite standard. Some London cafes like 'Brunchies' and the 'Copper Grill' do have sectioned off booth-style seating of a utilitarian design. This is good. But if all cafes had banquettes of the quality of 'RK Stanleys' then all would be well in the world.

A glass/formica arrangement is what we like to see with lots of cabinet action and a slavering display of the light refreshment on offer. In the middle of it all a gleaming volcanic Gaggia boiler blasting into the teacups and spuming the cappuccinos is de rigeur.

Paneling is always a good sign. Formica is the covering of choice [see 'City Snacks' on Theobalds Rd], but anything from a distressed woodchip to a worn lino can be effective. The dark rosewood decor of the new 'Great Eastern Dining Rooms' in Old St is a case in point. But for the very pinnacle, the 'Pellicci' in Bethnal Green with its luxury marquetry has to be the example par excellence.

Dressed in white coats and with Italian accents please - preferably on the elderly side with a full family of generations of caff workers surrounding them. Here we display the fine waitress - and owner of the Zita caff just off New Oxford Street - sporting her in-house orange apron (These are now collectors' items.) Sometimes the odd foul tempered matriarch can be amusing (see especially the owner of the Corner Cafe in West Brompton). But by and large, since this is Britain, you are unlikely to see anything resembling 'service' anyway... So, the staff had simply better look and play the part. (NB: the owner of John's Cafe Chalk Farm Rd used to be reassuringly disagreeable; and the guy who runs Tony's in Victoria is none too accomodating either - especially with cameramen trying to shoot his cafe signs.)

If you're lucky, a full set at the ideal emporium will have been in use for a generation. Something with a set pattern or simple line is good. And of course all Pyrex cups and saucers are a must - though generally rare to come by. Thank God the classic white pyrex cup and saucer set has passed into design language and is ubiquitous. Note that the large mugs at 'Alfredo's' in Islington were the worlds best and collectors items in their own right. We highly recommend the The Alpino cafe in Islington's Chapel Market for its amazing range of plates and saucers too.

Our perennial favourite is a toasted ham and cheese sandwich - 'bikini' as the Spanish would say. Otherwise, you can forget it on the quality nosh front. A '10 x 10' BBC short film called 'Full English Breakfast' shown in 1999 covers the eats angle adequately. The meals, of course, could have just as easily been consumed in any Happy Eater or Harvester. It's not about the food - it's the presentation. And since this is Britain you'll probably be eating BSE chopped-slop in every sausage and pie anyway. Focus on the fixtures and fittings and enjoy!


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


Return To Top of Page