June 22 2005: 'Greasy spoon wars' by Chris Hall
There is no greater call to
arms during this year's Architecture Week (June 17-26) than that
of saving the old-style Italian cafes from the 1950s, often disparaged
as greasy spoons or working men's caffs.
Adrian Maddox, author of the
definitive book on the subject, Classic Cafes, has compiled a
"last chance to see" tour of around 30 of them in London
(see www.classiccafes.co.uk for details).
Maddox's concern is with the
design and ambience of these cafes, which he finds "bracingly
Pinteresque, seedy and despairing".
The pictures in his book are
part Edward Hopper, part Martin Parr.
I met Maddox at the New Piccadilly
cafe, the "cathedral of cafes", in a side street by
"Everything here is original,
apart from the mirrors," he says. He's soon enthusing about
the Thonet chairs, the three shades of Formica and the extremely
rare horseshoe menu.
For Maddox, it's a war against
the big coffee chains whose "policy of extermination"
is forcing these cafes out of business.
He reckons that there are only
500 classic cafes left in the UK. Two London cafes, Pellici's
in Bethnal Green and Alfredo's (now S&M) in Islington, have
been grade II listed by English Heritage, but most, if not all,
will be gone in a few months or years, he claims.
Is listing the answer? Catherine
Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, says: "A
lot of the charm is in the furniture and the menus and what's
on the tables. It's popular art, not high architecture. Listing
them can only protect the building elements."
In fact, the owner of the New
Piccadilly, Lorenzo Marioni, is glad that English Heritage didn't
recommend it for listing last September, as this would have diminished
his potential for selling it, which he still might have to do.
With his landlord demanding
ever higher rent, he's never going to be able to compete with
the big chains. "I'd just love to be here at a reasonable
rent, serving the local community at a reasonable price,"
(The cafe can be seen on BBC1
in the new Richard Curtis film, 'The Girl in the Cafe', with
Kelly MacDonald and Bill Nighy.)