Caff Top Ten

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Greencoat Cafe (RIP), SW1



A brief and constantly changing rundown of the top London (and beyond) caffs. All of these establishments are worth seeking out for either atmosphere, location, decor or accessories. Some even have decent food! Beware: nearly all are under threat so get there sooner rather than later. Also, here's the full unexpurgated Central London Cafe Tour that was put together for Architecture Week 17 - 26 June 2005...


1a) The New Piccadilly, Denman Street W1
RIP Sep 07

Described by the Financial Times as
an "orgasm of searing yellow Formica", this is truly a cathedral amongst caffs run by the irrepressible Lorenzo (a true son of Soho) and his crack team of uniformed waiters. This is the last of the big hitters left in Soho and one of the largest original cafes left in Britain: pink Formica coffee machine, big plastic horseshoe shaped menu, wall-to-wall laminate surfaces and lots of brilliant booth seating. Even the New Piccadilly menu is a stone design classic. A place of reverence.

1b) E Pellicci, Bethnal Green Road E2
The mighty Pellicci. The bollocks! Best service. Best building. Best atmosphere. Good food. A throwback to another century. From the yellow and chrome Vitrolite exterior to the warm wooden interior this is an unbelievable Deco classic. Every part of this superb caff should be held in trust for the nation. The jaw-dropping marquetry interior - like something out of the Empire State Building - was crafted by Achille Capocci in 1946. See Pellicci's and die!

2) Gambardella, Vanbrugh Park SE3.
The building dates from the 1930s, but the unique moulded plywood revolving chairs were installed during the 1960s. Amazing flesh-coloured Vitrolite and chrome front section with a red and black Formica back room. A masterpiece.

3) L Rodi, Blackhorse Lane E17.
Splendid old caff that's been with the same family since 1925. The frontage is somewhat altered (thought the excellent 'L. Rodi Light Refreshment' sign is untouched) but the interior is phenomenal. A veritable caff museum.

4) Cafe, Redchurch Street E2. RIP Oct 06
Ashen Italian patriarch Ronnie runs this brilliant parlour-style caff like it was the long lost sibling to the old Tea Rooms in Museum Street. Achromatic Formica tables; ornate 50s wallpaper; blaring paintwork; rat-run ablutions; proud Thonet chairs; deco wallposters; authentic pegboard menu; chugging dumb-waiter... Sublime. In an area overrun with lofts, Jake and Dinos lookalikes and St*rbucks junkies, 36 Redchurch Street E2 is everything a caff connoisseur could want: antiquated, beleaguered, crummy, decayed, dingy, doddering, feeble, gimped, ramshackle, rickety, run-down, seedy, sidelined, spavine, threadbare, tumble-down, weather-beaten... But beautiful.

5) Golden Fish, Farringdon Road EC1.
Eleonora Ruocco's cosy familial Italian cafe with its ranks of 1940s rosewood booths with metal arms is one of the loveliest in London.

6) Alpino, Chapel Market N1. RIP
Only the stylish serif typeface of the sign above the door indicates anything special from the outside. Inside, however, this is a wonderland of fine top-of-the-range period tables and luxury booth seating. The Alpino's plum-patterned cup and saucer sets are ceramic perfection. (Under threat as of Mar 2008.)

7) Metropolitan, Edgware Road W2. RIP Sep 2004
Absolutely beautiful. Just down from where the Regent Milk Bar used to be, this longstanding local features lots of green and cream Vitrolite and an original Deco counter with stylish moderne lettering. All the original Deco mirrors and chair sets remain along with brilliant coloured Formica tables and smart old celing fans. (Joe Strummer and Paul Simenon were regulars in the late 1970s and the old place briefly appears to no great effect in the execrable Clash vehicle Rude Boy).

8) River Cafe, Putney Bridge Approach SW6.
This place has it all: superb vitrolite ceiling, magnificent blue-tile work, garlanded friezes, murals, excellent wood seats, full-on Formica tables. A show-stopper.

9) Don's, Lower Clapton Rd E5. RIP Jun 05
on Lower Clapton Road E5 seems to be perpetually on its last legs. Says Don fixture and caff classicist Jonathan Hourigan: "The cafe's run by the eponymous Don and his Italian siblings (all in their 70s and from Lucca in the 1930s). They've been there all their lives. The place sits just around the corner from where Harold Pinter was born. Don's looks as if it was once a stables and has an amazing Georgian double-bay at the rear looking onto a garden. Wooden interior, high ceilings, never full! It's open til 2.00 pm most days." Places like Don's offer something you can't get in your quotidian Costa Coffee: character. There's something terribly classy about it, even taking into account the nicotine-stained walls, ratty furniture and faintly grubby atmosphere. Pure genius.

10a) Italian Restaurant, Rochester Row SW1. RIP Oct 06
A real find. A great local in a brilliant little enclave off Victoria. Curvilinear counter in impressive beige dates from 1953. Classic b&w Formica wall covering. Absolutely superb.

10b) Corner Cafe, Empress Place SW6. RIP
This is hardcore: seeping bitterness, brooding desolation, simmering accidie, curdled sourness ... The Corner Cafe just delivers! Almost opposite West Brompton tube this is an Orwellian 1940s humdinger. Amazing brown lacquer benches (which should be saved for the V&A furniture collections); 60s Formica tables with a dense dark blue pattern; original steel 40s coat hooks; flesh-coloured curved counter; speckled red laminate service area; old tall-boy storage cupboards; stacks of Yellow Pages stuck in alcoves and a plethora of behind-the-counter detail too (signs, shelves, serviettes). Within minutes of shakily firing up the FujiFinePix the owner killed the shoot in a fit of snot n' snarl. The Corner Cafe comports itself with a sheer rancid spleen not witnessed since the war years. Quite magnificent... As of 21 Mar 2005: 'A sign's appeared on the front door announcing that it's closed for refurbishment and is 'under new management'. The place now has even more of a Marie Celeste feeling of abandonment. The Corner Cafe was certainly an acquired taste - like the invariably stewed tea. The owners didn't exactly create a life-enhancing ambience, I don't think I ever saw them laugh once. It's inextricably linked in my mind with a period of 1980s post-graduate unemployment. I'd sign on at the dole office off Fulham Place Road, before burning off my accumulated angst with a lengthy stroll through Hammersmith and Kensington High Street, before circling back to Fulham Broadway tube. My reward to myself would be a fry-up at the Corner Cafe, while flicking through the Evening Standard or a tabloid. Another old-style Italian owned caff in nearby Jerdan Place disappeared in the summer of 1999 when the area was redeveloped as the upmarket Fulham Island. The punk-hairstyle sporting daughter could be found helping out her parents, while her musician boyfriend lolled around smoking and drinking coffee...' (Patrick Turland)


Honourable mentions...

Euro Snack Bar, Swallow St W1. RIP Jun 04
A little gem in hidden Soho just off Piccadilly. Plain in function but a bit of a minimalist gem. Dark and tunnel-like with a fine frontage and logo, good seating and neat little counters holding salt and pepper pots on every table.

Andrew's, Grays Inn Road WC1. RIP(ish)
The perfect 'plain cafe' - extremely solid and pleasing all round. Staffed by saints, this place has a palpable ambience of motherly love. From the bright brown exterior with its jazzy mosaic tiles to the neatly laid out interior, the lovely Andrew's remains a beacon for the thronging artisans of WC1 from nearby Panther House. The comically forgetful service is a constant as the fine platters of basic well-priced nosh. (In September 2004 Andrews's interior was completely altered: though the historic frontage remains intact the ceilings and wall panellings have changed for the worse. Fortunately the original tables and chairs remain.)

Sandwich Bar, Brooks Mews W1. RIP Dec 06
A hidden gem, utterly overlooked in a lost mews surrounded by galleries and serviced apartments (and one of the only surviving London cafes originally listed in Jonathan Routh's The Good Cuppa Guide of 1966). Amazing sign, good door handles, brilliant green leatherette seats, worn Formica tables. Functional and friendly. A model of British utility.

Frank's, Addison Bridge Place W8.
Uniquely situated above a railway line, this is a superb old US diner-style place with crumbling interior, single stool seating and a picturesque Deco counter area.


Top ten outside London...

1) Morelli's Cappuccino, Victoria Parade, Broadstairs.
One of only a handful of 1950s UK
coffee bars left in existence, Morelli's opened in 1932 and was redesigned in 1957 in sensurround Formica, vinyl and Lino. It hasn't changed since. With its swathes of original pink vinyl seating, a small working fountain and an amazing curvilinear suspended ceiling, the general out-of-timeness makes the place feel like a sort of Portmeirion in pink Formica. "Morelli's have 65 years of experience running ice cream parlours. Marino Morelli the Managing Director has over 35 years experience of the catering trade and is determined that Morelli's Cappucino remains the foremost caterer in the country in terms of quality and service. To this end there is no compromise when determining customer satisfaction."

2) Connaught Corner House, Marine Parade, Worthing.
Worthing seems to have been pretty well forgotten since
Harold Pinter briefly lived there in 1963 (and wrote the scripts for the films The Pumpkin Eaters and The Homecoming). But the lovely Connaught, with its large curved windows overlooking the pier, retains a Pinter-esque flavour.

3) Harbour Bar, Sandside, Scarborough.
Famed for serving some of the best ice cream in the country, Giulian Alonzi's Harbour Bar is almost
unaltered since opening in 1945. With decor described by The Times as, "a sunburst of yellow and white, a banana split recreated in Formica".

4) Brucciani's, Marine Road, Morecambe.
Built on the eve of war in 1939, Brucciani's typifies the simple, geometric '
high street deco' popular at the time. The brown wood and chrome exterior has black lacquer base panels to the street, porthole lamps above the doors, ziggurat pattern doors, classic deco handles and original menus.

5) Kings Cafe, Elmbank Street, Glasgow.
Scots-Italians can trace their history back to the mass migrations of the late 1800s. Many remained in the port cities of
Glasgow, Greenock and Edinburgh, opening shops and serving dairy ice cream direct from barrows with shouts of 'Gelati, ecco un poco' (consequently becoming known as the 'Hokey Pokey' boys). Italian cafes subsequently sprang up all over Scotland. This is one of the finest (along with Queens Cafe), loved by many for its startling turquoise deco exterior.

6) Dino's, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow.
Dino's hadn't changed in at least thirty years but has now had a dodgy refit: "You can still see the essence of its former glory but something has been lost along the way. Thankfully, the big spoon survives" says Anne from

7) Venice Cafe, Ayr Street, Troon. RIP
Was completely untouched since the 1950s. Absolutely gorgeous inside, with lovely geometric Formica tables and little booths.
Now gone. A real shame. "The Pavilion is the only café with original decor left in Troon now."

8) University Cafe, Byres Road, Glasgow.
Matriarch Rina Verrecchia has been looking after generations of regulars since 1952 and her three sons (and some grandsons) work here too. Devotees revel in the Edwardian tearoom meets 1950s ice cream parlour feel.

9) The Koffi Pot, Welling High Street, Welling. RIP Feb 08
Dates from the 1930s and retains an unusual collection of coffee pots - all sizes, shapes and colours - displayed on a long shelf over the counter. The
large interior is a fantasia of lustrous frosted lemon and lime Vitrolite set off with original ceiling fans, neon strip lights and a pair of beautiful old fashioned stick-on-letter wall menus.

10) Divalls, Terminus Road, Brighton. RIP Dec 07
A dingy, parlour-style cafe next to the town train station, this remains the sine qua non of lost, languishing resort cafes: a battered orange logo above the door, outside windows lined with hand-written menus, flesh-coloured Formica canteen tables, cankered fake-wood laminate on every wall.


Regent Omelette Bar & Restaurant, Meadow St, Weston-super-Mare
"suitably dilapidated and on the periphery of a down-at-heel shopping area, its beautiful tiled exterior defiantly faces the massive plate-glass windows of McDonald's: padded leather seating, wooden interior, white-aproned staff, proper tea (out of an urn)... most of the customers seem to be care-in-the-community cases." (Robin Mackay)

Rendezvous Café, The Promenade, Whitley Bay NEW
"Totally unchanged"... "a delight" ... "absolutely fantastic" ... "The Rendezvous is a great cafe right on the beach at Whitley Bay. It's beautifully maintained and run with all sorts of ices on the menu as well as hot chocolate, cheese and tomato sandwiches (the odd bucket and spade too!) Always warm and friendly after a walk on the beach, it also has amazing views out of the big arched windows ­ on a stormy day you can sit and drink frothy coffee and watch the sea. The same family have been running it for a long time." (Emma Holiday)

The Gorge, The Woolmead, Farnham Surrey NEW
A key hangout in this art-school town for decades, the unlikely-looking Gorge is built into a drab arcade with little to indicate the nature of its full-on alpine-exotica interior. All of the wall surfaces are covered in sculpted fake snow so that the place looks like it's been hacked out of an Arctic drift and lined with dozens of little wood n' leatherette booths. (There's even an ice water-fall feature in the doorway). This is one of the wildest derivatives of the 1960s 'chalet' styling craze left in the country. Be warned: the service can be gobsmackingly inept.

Cafe Riviera, Quay Wall, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea Under Threat Feb 2004
For Sale notices have gone up on the art deco walls of Cafe Riviera, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea and its future is uncertain. Frozen in time since before the Second World War, the Riviera Café was developed from a group of cottages which looked out over Newbiggin Bay in the 1930s. Italian shopkeeper Benjamin Bertorelli created the building in stages and it was finally completed in 1937. The café was taken over by his son, Armando, who refused to follow changing fashions over the decades and kept it just the way it was in his father's day. Today it has the same tables, chairs, light fittings and display units that were brought in when it was built. The building remained unchanged, apart from regular decoration throughout the war years, the days of rationing, the rock `n' roll years, 1960s fashions, the Beatles era, men walking on the Moon and robot missions to Mars. The ice cream sold was made to a family recipe handed down through the generations (according to family legend, Bertorelli ice cream was a firm favourite of Queen Victoria) and the coffee was made to a blend Benjamin Bertorelli invented... "

Tonibell Snack Bar/Ice Cream Bar on 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.

Eastbourne Terminus Road - Caff City! NEW
Notarianni's Restaurant & Milk Bar
in Eastbourne lies in that archetypal moribundia address, Terminus Road ­ a treasure trove of classic caffs. It has an unusual, and apparently, original grey frontage from its opening back in 1947 but inside only the battered white banquette seating survives from the 40s. Atmosphere is nonetheless richly appealing to moribundia aficionados. Can't wait to return on a wet November afternoon! At the back of the caff is a collection of photographs of various Notarianni's in their heyday (this was a chain, mainly in the north of England.) The manager told us that a few survive: in Blackpool, Scarborough and other towns. Just up the road on the other side is a magnificent branch of a more familiar south coast chain, Macari's, happily retaining many of its original features: Splendid green and red wooden banquette seats, Formica tables, 1960s opening and closing-time clocks and a gorgeous street sign with a full colour knickerbocker glory (a motif repeated on the picture menu in the window.) I especially liked the Horlicks dispenser which pleasingly survives even though Horlicks, surely the signature drink of moribundians, is no longer served. However, the star of Terminus Road is undoubtedly the Taurus Steak House, next to Notarianni's. The sign is obviously 60's but nothing prepared us for the total timewarp interior. The manager told us that it had opened in 1969. And clearly absolutely nothing has changed since... the place mats, cruet sets, faded seating, carpet, the menu, take you straight back to the 60s and a bizarre pebble dash - no doubt very groovy in 1969 - covers one wall as while tall, conical copper lamps loom ominously above tables in one corner! (Richard Gray)

Felpham Boatyard Cafe, Bognor Regis NEW
'East of Butlin's at Bognor is a bizarre area of houses that are converted railway carriages, east of that lies Felpham. The boatyard there has a caff - lots of people (average age about 75) sitting outside and in drinking tea out of stripped mugs. The place is furnished with tables and chairs identical to those used by my parents when they redid their kitchen in 1967! The the rest of the decor is also redolent of the late 1960s. The tea was so good I had another cup!' (Robert Wyburn)


Much missed...

Regent Milk Bar, Edgware Rd W2 RIP Aug 2002
Excellent 'seaside' cafe in mint green Vitrolite. Large and popular and with a great jaunty feel. The walls, the tables, the flooring - everything about this caff [was] remarkable...

Valoti, Shaftesbury Ave W1 RIP Oct 1996
Great seats, lights and floor. Good logo. Long theatrical history - Audrey Hepburn was a regular. Now a crap brasserie. Vic Valoti set up his brilliant cafe over the road from Cambridge Circus in the 1940s when a young Audrey Hepburn used to be a regular. Until the mid 90s it remained an oasis of loud orange tiling, wonderful high backed dark green booths, Googie style light hangings and cute coat-hangers. Always on the wrong side of Soho - and all the better for it - the lease ran out, idiot landlords demanded savage rent rises and the staff were forced to vacate. The Valoti was very much loved in its prime and, along with the fine waitresses, is much missed by the producers of this site. We especially liked the evening sessions there, the Saturday opening hours and the fact it was the only place in Soho ever open on New Years day.

Cross Cafe, St Cross St EC1 RIP Feb 2003

Hugely sad news that the wonderful old St Cross St Cafe has been demolished. The place was one of the finest caffs left standing off Little Italy's Leather Lane. It was always a welcoming little eaterie, running the kind of real family operation that was a stamp of these kinds of Italian caffs (staff would often dispense free teas at Christmas time.) The joint had a superb fascia with huge green art deco lettering, net curtains on the doorway, multiple signs and meus in the windows and brilliantly individual little rosewood and leatherette seats throughout. A large mural of some Italian beach landscape overlooked the smallish - and always packed - eating area. Also gone, as the developers continue to devastate the entire EC1 area, is the St John's Cafe [Jerusalem Passage EC1] which had a great rickety old frontage, old seating and tables throughout and was hidden in a lost alleyway.

Sea Breeze, High Street E17 RIP Nov 2003
Behind the cut-glass front door there's a remarkable interior with large black and brown booths, astounding light-fittings and masses of Mondrian-coloured Formica panels throughout. A must-see.

Chez Monique, Gate St W1 RIP Jun 2002

  Chez Monique    
  RIP May 2002 Almost a 70s caff but saved by the quality of Orange Formica booth seating and the good chrome counter. Every town - every STREET - should have a local caff of this quality. In Italy, Portugal, France and Spain they do. The Monique 'look' should be cloned and one launched in every high street in England every week for the next century.    

Da Marco, The Strand RIP Oct 2003
Imposing chalet frontage (a la The Lucky Spot) with panelled interior and pleasant upstairs bar on the fringes of Theatreland: "It was always full of orchestra -pit players and shapely dancers from the nearby Chicago musical. Every time I went there the small Italian mother in black (of course) was arguing with her hulking great son. Pure Sicily! They attempted to rebrand the Full English by calling it The Builders Breakfast. Sadly, Da Marco closed down to make way for a restaurant which will, no doubt, cater for those unimaginative souls who come up to London once a year for all-in Andrew Lloyd-Webber weekends."(David Fogarty)

The Tea Rooms, Museum Street RIP Feb 2004
Rina and Eugenio Corsini's Tea Rooms hung on like some skid-row staging post in the 1960s documentary The London Nobody Knows (Mondo Cane for Cockneys fronted by James Mason: "the gritty historic fabric that was London in the sixtiesfacets of London life long since forgotten: street markets and their entertainers, residential slumsthe toughness of what it was to be homeless"). Notable for its refraction of two previous centuries of cafe activity: a hint of nineteenth century worker's snack bar; a dash of twentieth century Lyons dining hall. Yellowing exterior signage offset by a large jolly green deco typeface; interior decked out in wall-to-wall carmine mosaic Formica. Fry ups prepared on an old war-horse cooker called The London.

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