Back to 1994
The London café reviews below were written for our very first issue in 1994. Of the venues mentioned only the Bar Italia remains – evolving, as Soho has, from a sanctuary for the remnants of both the original Italian community and the peripatetic, coffee starved hustlers, artists, and addicts to the moneyed lot who have made Soho into a theme park for a more sanitized bohemia. In the succeeding years Bar Italia cleaned up its act – as did the rest of the survivors of Soho’s descent into modernity. For those of us who remember its more seedy past, there’s a rather sad sense of nostalgia. But the wonderful mirrored wall survives as does the coffee which still compares well to the somewhat pretentious artisan brews in the surrounding area. Of the remainder, Il Gattopardo had already hit the dust even as the first issue had gone to press – a victim of the ‘renewal’ of the King’s Cross neighbourhood that even twenty years later is still in process. The Aroma, which was reviewed with both excitement and aprehension, went the way of the corporate world, proving yet again that good independent café chains are momentary phenomena. In the case of the Aroma, the beginning of the end came just several years after our review was written when McDonald’s bought a minority share. A short time later, the Aroma cafes were absorbed into the empire of Nero. Michael Zur-Sziro, the founder, decamped to Argentina where he began a new café enterprise and after that we lost track. The much loved Coffee Gallery left Bloomsbury shortly after the National Library moved from the British Museum. The Hampstead Dome, was taken over by the Café Rouge which kept the accent but lost the flair. The Shoestore School of Mystery Writers would never have met there.
278 Pentonville Road, Kings Cross, London
Across from the old Scala theatre (sadly closed after spending its last days catering to old men in macintoshes who could have been excused for thinking its programme of 'art' films were just another form of low-cost porn), along the windtunnel of greasy rubbish sent down the purgatory of Pentonville Road, past street-kids with grimy faces lying boozed-out on the pavement, surrounded by grotty shops selling used food to pimps and fagged-out women on the prowl - Il Gatto overlooked it all with the detachment of one who has known kinder years.
Inside, with its faded carpets, worn down to the last shred of fibre, and scrawny potted plants, Il Gatto's first impression was that of the lobby in a half-star hotel. But, since the hotel was Italian, there was a hominess about it that overrode the grunge. And, if the place didn't exactly reek of bleach and chlorine, one only needed a gentle reminder that in a café like this a little grime never hurt anyone.
Behind the counter stood a middle-aged woman who looked as if her life had been played out in an early De Sica. But the walls spoke of another image entirely. Hanging about were huge, greying posters of 'Il Gattopardo' (known to the English world as 'The Leopard') with a young and svelte Burt Lancaster and an even younger Claudia Cardinale captured in a tender moment of costumed embrace, ageing, like the yellowing paper, there upon the plaster.
The clientele were as diverse as the surroundings. Just a short hop from King's Cross station, this little sanctuary was long used by those in the know whilst waiting for the 6:10 headed somewhere north. And if the aroma of a perfectly brewed coffee began to mingle with the smell of those magnificent croissants and brioches fresh from Il Gatto's oven - well, there was always the 7:15...
In Memorium. Like the Scala, Il Gatto sadly closed its creaky doors last year. All that remains is the fragrant memory of their delectable brioches and a faint waft of angelic espresso that still lingers in the smoggy, Pentonville air.
The Aroma Café
1B Dean Street, London W1D
I used to make it a practice to avoid anything remotely related to food, drink or recreation on, or within spitting distance of Oxford Street or any of the major shopping roads that link Hyde Park to Piccadilly Circus. The reason is obvious: here in England, anything that caters to mass taste is bound to be greasy, inedible and/or a product of an American fast-food chain. This notion is not born of snobbery but rather a lifetime of sad experience. But walking down Oxford one day , I noticed an interesting-looking café on the corner of Dean Street. And, somewhat against my better judgement, I went in.
What a delight it was to have my prejudice unrewarded! For it was immediately apparent that this place – the Aroma – was quite unique. From the moment I stepped inside I was mesmerised by its curious combination of outrageous charm and earnestness.
First and foremost was the colour scheme which broke every rule in the ‘How Not to Frighten the Natives’ book. To say the yellow and turquoise were bright is to say the equatorial sun doth shine. I mean, that and the salsa beat of the music should have been enough to blow me away. But it didn’t. Curiously, it was rather calming. And it wasn’t until I got my coffee from a delightful young woman behind the counter and sat down at a table that I could begin to analyse this paradox.
There were even more inconsistencies. The actual floor space was quite small and the café was filled with customers. It should have felt crowded but it didn’t. The coffee, which came from a push-button espresso machine controlled by a young English woman, should have been mediocre. In fact it was excellent.
Even more, it wasn’t, like most cafés, modelled on the French or the Italian. The closest I could type it, based on the colour scheme and the music, would be South American. But then I noticed they served Japanese crackers and Swiss chocolates.
Such eclecticism should have produced more of a mish-mash. The fact that it didn’t made me search even harder for some evasive organising principle. When I finally came up with it, like everything of beauty, it was relatively simple.
Aroma has an overriding sense of design which permeates every aspect of the place. Instead of the self-indulgent monstrosities modern architecture can create, this was, thankfully, humane. There was a clear attempt to bring together form and function, to provide a sense of communal relaxation and enjoyment – the antithesis of the pervasive practices which treat the masses like cattle and turn harmony into a privilege you have to pay for.
This sense of design went right down to the choice of tables and chairs. That so many could be crowded into such a limited area was due to the inspired notion of having them of different heights, thus creating the appearance of various levels.
The other critical factor was the staff. They were friendly and welcoming without seeming servile or saccharine. This idea of service is quite un-English (because of all the classist nonsense that stands in the way). And I suspect the people who work here are either treated with unusual respect by management or else given mood-enhancing tablets.
I later met the man behind this operation, Michael Zur-Sziro, and found him (despite the hyphenated name) to be every bit the visionary I hoped he would be. His notion of developing a popular café system in London, based around coffee, was put into practice only after years of discussion and thought. Fortunately, he connected with a group of young architects who were tuned in somewhere near his wavelength and were able to put his ideals onto the drawing board.
There are two other branches of the Aroma (soon to be three) all located centrally in the West End. Each has its own distinct personality (another curiosity for a chain).
What Aroma has proven is that good coffeehouses don’t have to be located in ‘trendy’ areas to succeed. Nor does a chain of cafés, geared to the masses, necessarily have to be mediocre. As long as one can escape the corporate mentality and accept the fact that each space is unique and must be allowed to develop its potential, there is no reason why a café concept like Aroma couldn’t be duplicated innumerable times.
Michael Zur-Szpiro and his team certainly deserve some sort of café award – a gold-plated coffee bean, perhaps? Short of social revolution, the Aroma cafés have done more to improve the quality of life in London then anything since the GLC cut the price of mass transport and turned the South Bank into festival city.
22 Frith Street London W1
Bar Italia is one of the last decent hang-outs that survived the up-market ruination of Soho. Set a few doors down Frith Street from Old Compton, it remained home to the various ethnic Italians who made that part of London their stomping ground.
The first time I went there, some years back, it seemed distinctly familiar to me - probably because I could have easily seen its like in New York's Little Italy or San Francisco's North Beach where there are dozens of places like this. But in London - unfortunately - Bar Italia was (and still is) unique.
In those days there was a cigar shop diagonally across Old Compton Street that had a marvellously illicit assortment of Cuban tobacco. A satisfying afternoon treat would be to load myself up with panatellas and spend an idle hour inside Italia.
The cigar shop, sadly, no longer exists. And, even worse, I've given up smoking. Bar Italia, however, keeps chugging along, though the clientele has shifted to suit the times (fewer working-class Italians, more dressed-down Yups.)
It's really a cubbyhole of a place, so compressed that you can almost reach from the serving counter to the narrow bar which runs down the length. A row of stools are arranged in front of the mirrored wall above the bar, so that when you sit down you're forced to look yourself smack dab in the face. Most customers avoid this intrusion by casting their eyes at other images or reflections - either of fellow customers or the pulsating patterns emanating from the giant TV set fixed to the wall at the back (most likely tuned to the Italian cable station or, more recently, horror of horrors, to MTV).
Whatever the tempo set by the media, there's always a constant flow of activity, no matter the time of day, the weather or the season of the year. The denizens of this place, as I said, have changed over the years. But they always seem to reflect the street life of Soho in all its many manifestations. From the lean and hungry delivery boys stopping for a quick fix in the morning to the silk-suited hustlers and black-stockinged bimbos at night, the mix is thorough and frenetic.
Through it all, the cool-eyed Italians behind the serving counter keep pumping away at the steaming machine which sits underneath an enormous poster of Rocky Marciano, below which is dangling a pair of boxing gloves. If you never heard of him, you're definitely not Italian. And if you don't think they serve some of the best coffee in London, you might consider getting your taste buds checked.
The Coffee Gallery
23 Museum Street London WC1
It wasn't an accident that Bloomsbury became home to London's literati. There, as in Hampstead, you only have to spend a few hours walking down the side streets that run off New Oxford and Gower to get a sense of the cultivated taste that fairly oozes from Georgian windows and sculptured cornices beckoning to those unreconstructed antiquarian lovers who have enough pocket money to spend fifty or a hundred quid for a mouldy copy of a first edition Henry James - or like to pretend they have, at any rate.
But the convergence of the British Museum and University College also attracts quite an interesting cross-section of humanity. Here, an anarchic school group - Italian, German, French - trying to collect itself before the bus zooms off across the Channel leaving Gino, Hans or Pierre stuck in a portaloo somewhere; there, a linguistics scholar dressed in tweeds pushing up his spectacles and pocketing his Wittgenstein after bumping into a lamppost unawares...the list of charming sights is endless.
I used to spend some fascinating lunchbreaks watching it all pass before my eyes when I did research at the British Library. Entering the privileged portals of knowledge and power, leaving the great hordes of humanity behind and rubbing shoulders with the next Russell or Hardy was one thing. Finding a quiet place where normal people sat and drank a good cup of coffee was quite another.
Several years ago, however, a ray of sun burst upon Museum Street in the form of The Coffee Gallery. I watched as it was being constructed and could tell at once that it would be something special.
First of all, the architecture gives maximum importance to light which floods in through the enormous front window. Even the niche at the back of the café, which could have been gloomy and dark, is lit by means of the air well which extends from the adjoining building; the well itself became a miniature garden.
Secondly, the interior decor gives a feeling of space accentuated by the high ceilings and bright walls. The furniture is simple, well designed and comfortable. But what gives the café an immediate definition is the choice of art. There is hardly any pretence here, just an expression of joyful vitality and a sharp eye for form and colour.
On first visit, I was pleased, but hardly surprised, to find that the coffee and pastries were superb. Clearly, the owners have artistic souls which easily transfer from the visual to the culinary. Their excellent coffee is served in enormous cups which sing, like Pavarotti, the Italian triumph of merging eye and stomach.
Indeed, all the brilliantly designed crockery on which are served the simple but tasty lunches, are also on display. Imported from cooperatives in Sicily, the Amalfi Coast and Padua, the pieces, though commercial, are quite exceptional.
So too are the paintings which adorn the walls. From the very beginning, the café has made itself available to local artists. All works are catalogued and offered for sale. Those chosen - the ones I've seen at least - seem to be strong in colour and design, fitting in quite well with the pottery on display. I'm sure this limits the choice of artists they include, but it's hard to fault them on keeping up such a refreshing mood.
The leaders of this enterprise, Piero and Henrietta Amodio, truly deserve a note of recognition for bringing off something that, on the face of it, seems so easy - a comfortable, welcoming café that manages in a simple and unpretentious way to merge space, design, craft and food. Clearly these are people who love what they do. And it shows.
38 Hampstead High Street London NW3
It's been said that a café in France is a place one goes to drink anything but. Modelled on its namesake in Paris, the Dome appeared to take that notion seriously until an enlightened new management decided that real coffee prepared in a fitting manner was every bit as important as having a plonk-free wine list or beer that could be consumed by people who didn't come from Barnsley.
On the other hand, I must admit that even in its rot-gut days, I found the Dome in Hampstead a welcome sanctuary. With newspapers on racks, nicotine-stained walls and a laissez-faire attitude toward lingering, it became a welcome addition to the High Street which, till then, was more posh and nosh with no place really for the cash-strapped bohemian. The Dome, with its continental flair, did much to change all that. Finally, for heaven's sake, there was a place for true boulevardiers to hang their hats.
I used to go there in the mid-eighties when it was home to the Shoestore School of Mystery Writers. In the cold blistering days of winter we would dream we were in Paris (where it would have been miserably cold as well) and maybe down a calvados with a double espresso to complete the illusion.
The Dome set the stage for the onslaught of the continental cafés in London - most of which are mere pretenders. But the Dome worked best and so it began to clone. Now there are Domes all over the place (even in Cambridge and Oxford). Along with Aroma, they've done their part to turn London around, giving it an added push toward Europe away from its anchor in little England.
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