Adrian Maddox | Author Biog & Interview: Financial Times

Adrian Maddox: outside Andrew's WC1 (2003)    Pic: Peter Anderson


Adrian Maddox is the webmaster of and the author of the acclaimed large-format book based on the site, Classic Cafes (Black Dog Publishing). He moved to London in the 1980s and lives in Bow, East London, close to his joint-first favourite cafe the mighty E. Pellicci in Bethnal Green. (Much of Classic Cafes was conceived and written at his office, Booth 4b The New Piccadilly - his other joint-first favourite London cafe.)

He has appeared on BBC London TV news, BBC national TV news, ITN, BBC World Service, Robert Elms Show, Danny Baker Show, Radio Four's Excess Baggage, Food Programme, Full on Food, Working Lunch and Sky.

Both the Classic Cafes website and book have been praised by The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, The Financial Times, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Internet Magazine, FX Magazine, Time Out, Elle Decoration, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Twentieth Century Society.

Adrian Maddox Interview | Financial Times | 1 November 2003 | by Leslie Gillilan

Bright lighting, banquettes ­ the romance of London's postwar Italian-style cafes is threatened by the relentless march of the fast-breeder US chains... but London's classic cafes stand firm...

Sitting opposite me in a corner booth of the New Piccadilly, Adrian Maddox is putting the world to rights. It is, perhaps, what people do - or used to do - in postwar Soho cafes - a bit of sociopolitical table-banging over endless mugs of Typhoo or cups of espresso.

The New Piccadilly certainly sets the scene perfectly: the fading 1950s decor, the atmospheric fug of steam, fags and chip fat; and Maddox himself, the angry young-ish writer, railing against a society which he fears will allow the New Piccadilly - indeed, a whole generation of "vintage Formica cafes" - to be wiped out by the "scourge of fast-breeder US coffee chains".

Maddox has other good causes ("weary Legion halls, disparaged bars, frayed tailors, barbers, bare foyers - all part of the British genius for managed decline", he says) but his passion is London's "classic" Italian-style cafes.

He sees them as emblems of our national character ("created by individuals for individuals") and, against all odds, champions their survival. The fate of the New Piccadilly, he explains, hangs by a thread.

Certainly, Maddox looks genuinely aggrieved when he talks about the demise of the Monaco Cafe in Great Russell Street. "The interior was astonishing," he says, recalling the "ocean-liner panelling, the War of the Worlds-style UFO lamp fittings, the Festival of Britain hatstand".


an oasis of leatherette sanity

He lists the loss of the Regent Milk Bar (Edgware Road's own seaside cafe was a homage to lime green Formica) and Brunchies in Great Titchfield Street ("an oasis of leatherette sanity") among recent classic-cafe casualties.

Others are doomed to follow but if Maddox has anything to do with it they will not be forgotten. Indeed, more than 100 of London's postwar cafes - some lost, many still surviving - are detailed and documented for posterity on, the illuminating website he founded six years ago.

Described as a "seriously sentimental... fast-track insight into the backwaters of Britannia Moribundia", the site is a cult web classic. And this week it is followed by a book of the same name. Both represent a personal but popular crusade to preserve or at least record London's endangered legacy of mid-century cafes, for which Maddox seeks wider recognition as "mini masterpieces of vernacular high-street design".

The timing is appropriate. It is the 50th anniversary of Britain's first Italian-style espresso bar, the Moka in Frith Street, a long-lost Soho institution opened by Gina Lollobrigida in 1953.

Once a crucible of the seedy glamour that was postwar Soho (described by Quentin Crisp as a social melange of "bookies and burglars, actresses and artisans, poets and prostitutes"), it was closed down in the early 1970s after a spat with the writer William S Burroughs over a piece of cheesecake (or so the story goes). But, nonetheless, it goes down in Classic Cafe history as the role model for the generations of Italian-run coffee bars and cafes that followed.


cultural ascendancy

All brightly lit and deco-moderne and furnished with melamine, chrome, Vitrolite and Gaggia espresso machines, they must once have seemed strangely exotic but soon evolved into the most British of urban eateries - the greasy spoon, the working men's "caff", the bastion of low-budget, ketchup-and-custard English food.

According to Maddox, the postwar cafe can even take some credit for London's "cultural ascendancy" in the 1960s. "The whole of the British rock 'n' roll movement was born in a caff," he insists. But progress - and profit - has no room for nostalgia.

The victims of redevelopment, savage rent increases and the relentless march of chains such as Starbucks, Benjys and Pret A Manger, the old-style, family-run cafe is an endangered species. "They are dead men walking," says Maddox grimly.

I asked him to show me a slice of Classic Cafe life, and embarked on a walking tour that took us south from Bond Street to the northern edge of Mayfair and east into Soho and the back streets of Piccadilly.

This is by no means the complete tour, explains Maddox, whose orbit of all-day breakfast venues extends into Enfield to the north of London, Putney in the southwest, Mile End in the east and beyond.

His own favourite is former Kray twins' local, "the mighty Pellicci" in Bethnal Green. In fact, both book and website also peek through the windows of cafes outside the capital in Broadstairs, Brighton, Swansea and Morecambe. But, as far as Classic Cafe society goes, central London remains the Holy Grail.

We start in an unremarkable little place called the Sandwich Bar in a dead-end mews tucked away behind Claridge's. We sit, not among poets, or even prostitutes, but builders, cabbies and doormen, while I am introduced to the finer points of such original features as plastic stick-on lettering, sludge-green Formica and banquettes in matching green leatherette...


Alpine exotica

... The decor is dingy but, according to Maddox, this is one of the best examples of London's few surviving "plain-style" cafes. "It has a Pinteresque feel, which seems to me to be the defining element of the classic caff," he enthuses.

I have less enthusiasm for the Sandwich Bar's "lo-fi minimalism" but things improve when we hit Grosvenor Street, where Maddox introduces me to the Chalet. A classic example of the postwar trend for "Alpine exotica" themed cafe-restaurants, it's clad in Tyrolean timbering, lined with immaculate polished-wood panelling and furnished with wrought iron and cute Alpine chairs.

In Old Compton Street, we take a swift look at the Pollo (original red booths, beanpole rails, little coloured lights), before peering into the magnificent Presto, a time-warped trattoria, reminiscent of Rimini 1956 and decorated in orange and Mediterranean blues, mosaics and dressed-up chianti bottles. "Derek Jarman used to live in the Presto," says Maddox. "He was in here every day."

I am fed more snippets of socio-cultural memorabilia as we pass the "very plain" Centrale cafe (where Malcolm McLaren nurtured the 1980s pop band, Bow Wow Wow), and the nearby Cappuccitto - one of two 1960s London cafes owned by Alberto Pagano, who claims to have introduced Britain to pesto (as well as the art of sprinkling chocolate powder on to cappuccino)...


Vienna cafe chair #14

Throughout the tour, Maddox points out nice little Sorrentine touches, classic ceiling details, mosaic-tiled doorways and laminate floors; he lifts plastic tablecloths to reveal "original" tables and introduces the Thonet bentwood chair (the "Vienna cafe chair, number 14", a classic-cafe staple, was designed by Michael Thonet in 1859, and is still in production).

He also takes pains to show me the price of progress. "Look at that horrific plastic seating, the nasty signage", he spits as we pass one recently "decimated" cafe. The Bar Italia is authentic, he agrees, as we eye up its chromed facia and two-tone leatherette stools, "but it's full of Soho media gimps and televised sport - it's too active." He generally prefers the worn-out, threadbare, Pinter-meets-Hopper version of the classic cafe. "Utterly isolationist and unflinching in its utility" is his idea of a eulogy.

It would not, however, be a fitting description for the glory of the New Piccadilly in Denman Street, the "cathedral among cafes" Maddox deliberately saves until last. "Look at the signage, the frontage, the colours," he entreats. "Look at Lorenzo."


orgasm of searing yellow Formica

The ebullient Lorenzo Manioni, who has spent his life in the New Piccadilly, hasn't changed a hair of his father's business since it first opened in 1951. Everything - the orgasm of searing yellow Formica, the plastic flowers, the pink enamelled espresso machine, the neon "Eats" sign, the Pyrex cups, the glasses, even the menu (peach melba, banana split) - is completely original.

We order. Maddox tucks into a plate of chips and beans. I have the daily special (chicken casserole served with chips and green beans). You can feast on the atmosphere here but the food is average. "My rallying cry about classic cafes is that the food is utterly immaterial," explains Maddox. "You can complain about food anywhere at any time. Crap food will go on forever but these places are going to vanish."

Sadly, the New Piccadilly is destined to be swept away in a planned redevelopment of Denham Street. And, I agree with Maddox, cafes like these should be listed and protected - they may not be everyone's cup of tea but to see a place of such rare and stalwart individuality, such an iconic period piece, crushed by the advancing homogeneity of High Street UK is a tragedy.

Maddox hopes that "in a small Michael Moore-ish way" his book will help spark a campaign against the "corporate hubris" that is destroying the character of, not just cafes, but every nook and cranny of our largely unprotected commercial heritage.

"In the mid 20th century, nobody cared about Victorian architecture," he says, the point being that we had already destroyed acres of 19th century buildings before appreciating what we had. Widespread appreciation for 20th century shop premises is barely even born, but all is not yet lost for the classic cafe.


saved for the nation

Take, for example, the happier case of Alfredo's cafe on Islington Green in north London. Owned by one family since the 1920s, it was a much-loved local landmark with a perfectly preserved ocean-liner, art deco frontage, and classic interior. Then suddenly, recalls Maddox, it went.

"The front was boarded up, the chrome sign disappeared. It was terrible." But not terrible for long. Alfredo's was acquired by London's small Sausage & Mash restaurant chain and has since been completely restored. "Every piece of homogeneity Vitrolite, every bit of plastic, every chair has been restored," rejoices Maddox. Even the stolen sign was returned.

"Okay, so the food has moved upmarket," he adds rather wistfully "But Alfredo's has been saved for the nation, and that's what matters."


More > The Times: Classic Cafes feature (by Bob Stanley)

More > Legend of Booth 4B (& Sunday Post Interview)

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