Feature:Skinny Lattes in the Lap of Humanity
French cafés and US diners have received substantial cultural focus over the decades. But the old style Italian Formica cafes of the 1950s, and earlier, have never been given their due despite their manifest contribution to the (sub) cultural life of post war Britain.
Often dismissed as 'greasy spoons', Classic Cafes (those unchanged British working men's Formica caffs which retain most of their mid-century fixtures and fittings) are actually mini-masterpieces of vernacular 1950s and 1960s design.
Most are now vanishing in a welter of redevelopment. But once, their of-the-moment design and mass youth appeal galvanised British cultural life and incubated a whole postwar generation of writers, artists, musicians, crime lords and sexual interlopers.
Phil Nicolls Tea Rooms, Phil Nicholls
For a country that had emerged from World War Two economically crippled and facing the complete collapse of long-held social and political certainties, the caffs became forcing houses for the cultural advance guard coursing through London at the time.
The classic cafes of the 1950s added an impassioned colour to Britain's post war social, artistic and commercial scene. The mix of cafes, a nascent TV industry and the skiffle cult effectively created a new world order as, from 1963-1967, London dictated youth culture to the world.
Within a decade of the first Soho espresso bar, The Moka at 29 Frith Street, being opened in 1953, London became the world's hippest city: a ferment of music, fashion, film, advertising, photography, sex, crime, and the avant-garde.
The cafes were, "the first sign that London was emerging from an ice age that had seen little change in its social habits since the end of the first world war. Once the ice began to crack, everything was suddenly up for grabs." Without them, the unleashing influence of the 1960s might never have been so seismic.
Today, the big coffee combines are destroying classic cafes en masse. By deliberately negotiating exorbitant leases, and raising 'comparables' (rent levels used to calculate local rent increases) they are putting competitors out of business at an astonishing rate. This brutal Starbuck-ing of the high street is leading to the wholesale erasure of British vernacular retail architecture.
"The architecture and ambience of [classic cafes] is fast being levelled in a kind of massive cultural, corporate napalming by the big coffee chains... they will not rest until every street in the West is a branded mall selling their wares. Orwell's nightmare vision in 1984 was of a jackboot stamping on the human face forever. If the coffee corporates have their way, the future is best represented as a boiling skinny latte being spilt in the lap of humanity in perpetuity." (Adrian Maddox, The Observer, Aug 1 2004)
The loss of London1s classic cafes should be particularly sadly felt. For their far-reaching impact on modern Britain, we owe them, and their founders, an immense debt of gratitude. And a serious duty of care.
Classic Cafes by Adrian Maddox (Black Dog Publishing £15.99) is the definitive study of British cafes. Royal Institute of British Architects: 'sumptuous... beautiful... breathtaking... deeply evocative...'. The Twentieth Century Society: 'genius... passionate... elegiac... wonderful'. Daily Telegraph: Everything a cafe connoisseur could want... poignant... melancholy'
The widely acclaimed website www.classiccafes.co.uk has a massive five years worth of research and archive material relating to London caffs. 'Brilliant', The Sunday Times. 'A cult web classic', Financial Times. 'Excellent', The Guardian
The London Architecture Week guide has a tour of these cafes. Email [email protected] with your address for a printed guide. A full tour can be found at http://www.classiccafes.co.uk/Tour_central.html