Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

16 January 2011

Sounds and pictures of some traditional London cafes

AN EMAIL ARRIVES from Adrian Maddox of the Classic Cafes website with some dispiriting news. The Double Six cafe on Eversholt Street in Euston has shut down and the premises are being gutted.

The Double Six was where I first met Adrian. He’s a great raconteur with a remarkable capacity for tea, downing six or seven large mugs that lunchtime. The cafe was popular with cab drivers and railway workers, and its worn tables and chairs made for a more cosy, sympathetic atmosphere than that of the chain coffeeshops in Euston station. Here’s what it sounded like on another afternoon:

I’d first come across Adrian’s work with Classic Cafes years before and straightaway saw how it brought forward something of the eccentric and haphazard London that was quickly passing away. Secondhand shops, furtive enterprises in railway arches, army surplus stores run by strange and bad-tempered men, sprawling street markets and pubs with worn carpets, scruffy and content in the summer, and all somehow bound up in memory with the smell of household skips and brick dust.

For a while I tried to make my own website documenting such aspects of the city, but without setting a focus the project lost its way and nothing came of it. All that remains is a bunch of pictures taken around 2001 and 2002. Many of the cafes and pubs which I visited then have now disappeared just ten years on. Here are a few of those photos of cafes and the people in them.

George's Restaurant, York Way

George’s Restaurant was on York Way overlooking the gas holders at the back of Kings Cross station. It looked pretty much like the definitive workman’s cafe of the 1970s, complete with sun-scoured Pepsi sign.

The man who it was named after had died by 2001, and his widow and brother-in-law were in charge. [See comment below from George’s grandson.] She worked in the kitchen while Andy made the tea, took the orders and cleared the tables. He was a friendly man, and here he is keeping shop:

Andy of George's Restaurant

A charming couple ran Dave’s Restaurant on Battersea Park Road near the junction with Queenstown Road, just a short distance from Corelli’s restaurant and ice cream parlour. Nearby on Queenstown Road proper a huge wall-painted sign for ‘Dining Rooms’ can still be seen, but the cafe beneath it is of the modern kind with fixed plastic seating, which makes eating there feel a bit like visiting someone on remand. Dave’s Restaurant had the better option of individual wooden chairs.

Dave's Cafe, Battersea Park Road

Pimlico used to have a lot of interesting little shops, and its tiny street market still struggles on despite Westminster Council not always having been very supportive of it. Nearby was a small enclave of shops, including one of the last Popular Book Centres in London, complete with the usual copies of True Detective hanging up in the shop window, and next to that was a cafe with the straightforward name of Italian Restaurant.

Italian Restaurant has now gone too, but it had a loyal group of customers including this old lady who used to travel all the way from Sutton to spend the afternoon drinking tea and chatting with Johnny the proprietor:

Customer in Italian Restaurant, Pimlico

Albert, another Italian Restaurant regular:

Albert in the Italian Restaurant, Pimlico

The cafe that perhaps preserved best the essence of an older London of stewed tea, bread and marge and ‘ta’ and ‘pardon’ was the Tea Rooms off New Oxford Street. Nearly every surface between the floor and ceiling was covered in Formica. The high-backed pew seating gave it the spartan and slightly solemn feel that pie-and-mash shops also have when they’re not busy. It too has been swept away by time.

In the photo below you can see the gleaming Still water boiler, which several cafe owners told me was the best one for tea-making.

Tea Room, off New Oxford Street

Every working day I pass St Pancras International. Give me a moment to slag off Paul Day’s embarrassing ‘The Meeting Place’ sculpture, which features a nine-metre-high pair of Martian office workers embracing. Day would be better employed in a garden gnome factory. The only question is, did the developers pay Franklin Mint for it all at once or in twelve monthly instalments?

But before that and the overpriced shops, St Pancras had all kinds of interesting things beneath it, particularly in the warren of arches and cellars that extended north. On the Pancras Road side was the Railway cafe, patriotically painted in the national colours of its owners:

Railway Cafe, St Pancras

Some of the best London cafes were run by Italians, mostly immigrants from south of Naples. Italians have done a lot over the decades and centuries to make London a more civilised place.

Unfortunately, few of the sons and daughters of the older proprietors want to carry on in the business. It involves hard work with an early start, but at least Alpino is still there in Chapel Market, and Pellici in Bethnal Green Road has a beautiful interior and friendly atmosphere:

When they’re all gone it’ll be time to leave London.

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