Classic Cafes | The Times feature

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


Classic Cafes | The Times | October 2003 | by Bob Stanley

Soho's survivors - The New Piccadilly, Centrale, Bar Bruno, Presto - are still packed with artists, layabouts and Colin Wilson wannabes. If Soho is our Left Bank then the New Piccadilly is our Deux Magots, existentialism with chips and beans...

The back cover of The Sun And The Rain by Madness summed it up. A pop group whiling away the day in a cafe with steamed up windows and a green and white luncheon vouchers sticker in the window. Plotting a revolution over tea and toast. The romance of the squeezy ketchup bottle.

As a kid, cafes had always seemed to me just as illicit and secretive as pubs. Out shopping in Woodhatch, Surrey, the lure of the Corner Cafe could only be enhanced by dark, vague warnings from my mum. We were only given the occasional treat in Fortes, Redhill. It had no jukebox.

A few years on, Dexy's Midnight Runners - a band that demanded total compliance from their listeners - released an intense, atmospheric instrumental called The Teams That Meet In Caffs which just about sealed it.

As soon as I moved to London I sought out a base. Starting a pop group (Saint Etienne), writing a fanzine (Caff,of course), it all came together very quickly at The Oval Platter on Charing Cross Road, Gattopardo at King's Cross, The Regent Milk Bar on Edgware Road. Bohemian no-go areas.


three dimensional socialist propaganda...

The first coffee houses in Britain opened in 1652, fomenting dreams of empire for merchants and the new media.

Three hundred years on, the Festival of Britain was the spark for a British art boom that would sweep the world, and expresso bars were the new dens of iniquity.

Churchill called the festival "three dimensional socialist propaganda." Lord knows what he would have made of the Moka on Frith Street, London's first milk bar, opened by Gina Lollabrigida in 1953.

The festival had pumped colour into modernism and, with help from new materials from Scandinavia such as Formica and melamine, milk bars and expresso bars were built to look hypermodern. Within months, The Moka had inspired a space age hidey-hole on every British high street.

Soho had a greater concentration of coffee bars in the fifties than anywhere. Post-war austerity seemed absent there and the new caffs attracted many of London's leading intellectuals - Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach. At Cafe Torino on the corner of Dean Street and Old Compton Street, Colin Wilson literally made his name and his fame as a caff dweller.

The prices were low and the owners allowed credit. The poets and pale young artists flocked there, inspiring Wilson's The Outsider, an existentialist phenomenon in 1956.

The licensing laws kept you out of the pub until you were 21, so coffee bars incubated teen culture. If the war had created the first generation gap, then post-war reconstruction blew it wide open.

Disaffected creativity gave birth to the DIY skiffle craze, kids with washboards, kazoos, and tea-chest basses playing in coffee bar basements. Youth revelled in a new found freedom.

Evening sessions at the 2i's on Old Compton Street provided a melting pot for jazz, skiffle, and new American rock'n'roll. Regulars included Adam Faith, Cliff Richard, The Shadows, Vince Taylor - when Jack Good started broadcasting TV shows from the 2i's in 1958, British rock began.


flick knives and scratched Formica...

In the sixties the mods ruled the towns but the rockers had the countryside. The New Piccadilly on Denman Street barred bikers after they produced flick knives and scratched the Formica tables with their boots - the owners were rewarded with bricks through the window.

The transport cafe was the biker's home, where rock'n'roll blared from the jukebox as loudly as it did at a fairground.

The Ace Cafe on the North Circular was a lorry driver's cafe by day, but a home for the Ton-Up Boys by night, in the days when that stretch of dual carriageway was almost totally empty.

Great art may not have poured from the bikers' leather gloves, but writers like Nell Dunn were drawn to these outsider gangs, and Sidney Furie's The Leather Boys (1963) is a masterpiece of Brit angst.

The homo-eroticism of the bike gangs would not have been lost on Gilbert and George who spent much of the seventies and eighties in Spitalfields' Market Cafe.

hey even helped run the business for a while and served behind the counter as the number of customers slowly fell away. "It was like Rules" said Gilbert, "only much better and cheaper."

At the same time in Birmingham, Kevin Rowland was putting together Dexy's Midnight Runners at The Apollonia on Broad Street.

Their New Soul Vision was formed over endless rounds of teas "waiting on information, planning our next move" while Rowland organised gigs using the payphone. The caff features briefly in the video for Geno.


The Beatles' favourite meal...

In Liverpool, Brian's Diner was opened by ex-boxer Brian McCaffrey in the sixties. He claimed to be in the Guinness Book Of Records for having the fastest punch which, obviously, nobody ever questioned.

Initially he serviced the kids who went to The Cavern and Iron Door clubs, but by the late seventies much of the hinterland was derelict.

Brian's was claimed by the new Merseybeat bands. The Teardrop Explodes did a photo session there. Echo And The Bunnymen made a documentary called Life At Brian's.

Eventually, only skint bands from the adjacent rehearsal rooms went, nursing 40p cups of tea, and Brian served his last egg and chips - The Beatles' favourite meal - in the late nineties.

Adrian Maddox's Classic Cafes website has kept the flame burning during the barren Starbucks era. His argument that cafes are central to the cultural life of post-war Britain is solid, so it seems all the more sad that they are falling by the wayside with alarming regularity.

"We are left with the Aztec ruins of a bigger civilisation" cries Maddox. Yet Soho's survivors - The New Piccadilly, Centrale, Bar Bruno, Presto - are still packed with artists, layabouts and Colin Wilson wannabes.

If Soho is our Left Bank then the New Piccadilly is our Deux Magots, existentialism with chips and beans.


More > Adrian Maddox: Legend of Booth 4B & Sunday Post interview



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