lost English drabness

In London last week, I found a classic British caff in Islington’s Chapel Market. Founded in alpinocruet.jpg1959, Alpino has held onto it’s character for half a century. The interior boasts museum-quality formica tables and shiny, worn leatherette-covered booth seating (patched with gaffer’s tape where necessary). Fluted wall panels, teak-veneer Formica, glossed-over 1950s anaglypta, red lino floor tiles and teak detailing add up to a classic caff in the finest style.

Oh, and the food is great too. I had a full English breakfast: scrambled egg, bacon, tomatoes, one hash brown, toast (one piece fried) and cups of tea. All for £3.10.

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Caffs are to the British what classic, Art Deco-style diners are to Americans. There were once thousands of caffs throughout Britain, mostly in London, opened originally by an influx of Italian immigrants in the 1950s.

But like other English icons such as the double-decker Routemaster bus and the red phone booth, the British caff is an endangered species. There are about 500 left — fewer than 100 in London, says Adrian Maddox, author of the book Classic Cafes. In London, the number of independent cafes has fallen by 40% since 2000, according to a study commissioned by HP Sauces, a condiment maker whose brown steak sauce is a staple at caff tables. The study says caffs could disappear completely by 2010.

In a review of Classic Cafes, Sandi Toksvig of BBC 4 has this to say: “Often dismissed as ‘greasy spoons’, classic cafes are actually little gems of British vernacular high street commercial design. Here the last remaining enclaves originally vilified in the 1950s for their embodiment “of corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions – a sort of spiritual dry rot amid the odour of boiled milk” are extensively revealed and reappraised. For 50s Britain, cafes once represented a European dynamism that added much needed colour to Britain’s post-war social, artistic and commercial scene. However, by the late 70s their original spirit had been extinguished and throughout the 80s and 90s they fell into disuse – despised and forgotten. Today these classic cafes retain a quintessential, poignant quality of lost English drabness and a ‘contemporary’ utilitarian minimalist aesthetic that marks them out as icons of design.”

“We don’t value certain things until they are gone forever,” says Simon Cheung, owner and chef of Alpino, a local favorite with paneled walls, wooden booths and Formica tables.

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the lingering air of inertia and lost souls. . .

 Since purchasing the diner in 2001, Cheung, a native of Hong Kong, has seen business decline. Alpino is located in Angel Islington, a former working-class neighborhood that has gone upscale, pricing out many of the retirees, construction workers, taxi drivers and students who formed Alpino’s customer base. During the past two years, two caffs on the street failed, Cheung says.

Their demise resulted from a variety of factors. Owners retired; rents soared. The public began turning away from unhealthy foods. Many Britons decided they were too busy for a proper sit-down breakfast.

Maddox and HP blame a more powerful force: Starbucks, and other American and European chain cafes that dot the London landscape. Starbucks, which has more than 200 locations in London, says in a statement that it has “helped to contribute to the phenomenal growth in the UK coffeehouse culture” that has benefited independent cafes as well as the chains. . . . . yeah, right.

Visit the Classic Cafes website to find out more about London’s greatest Twentieth Century vintage Formica caffs.

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I hopped off the 38 bus en route to the British Museum to take this photo. I’ve never been in a classic, grim British Tea Room, just the twee ‘Betty’s’ chain in Yorkshire or touristy ‘Auntie’s’ in Cambridge. Are any still around?

This from the Classic Cafes website- Tea Rooms Special:

“Everything about the Tea Rooms was a bracing avowal of British dinginess at its most downbeat and determined. From the paint-stripper tea to the biscuit displays and bacon sandwich posters it was timeless, brilliant and perfect.

Tea Rooms seemed to refract two previous centuries of caff half-life: a hint of nineteenth century worker’s snack bar; a dash of twentieth century Lyons dining hall… The mosaic-Formica interior had an affecting spartan beauty. Stilled and perfect. The very picture of raw, essential English isolationism.

The (mostly) elderly male clientele seem to have been regulars for nigh on half a century. Teathe-coffeehouse.jpg Rooms lovers will not readily forget the lingering air of inertia and lost souls: the murmur of the long, atrophied afternoons, dolour condensing on the windows… The whole scene exuded the greasy immanence of William Ratcliffe’s 1914 painting ‘The Coffee House’, which: “despite its colourful interior, conveys a characteristic melancholy and anonymity”.

The Tea Rooms showed Britain doing what it has done so well now for over half a century: blanching the life from a working populace poleaxed from generations of managed decline. George Orwell would have felt very much on homeground.”

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2 thoughts on “lost English drabness

  1. Just like New York, too… the Starbucks invasion is nearly complete. Starbucks is never satisfied to add itself to the culture of cafe life in a community – they only buy up competing locations – even if only half a block away.

    Nevertheless, this was a fascinating post. I still have the “old movie” idea that London – Britain is full of small tea rooms where one might sit undisturbed over an entire fat pot of tea. Ha! The last time I was there was ten years ago and I stayed in Hampshire. At that point the local pub served as tea room too, and I wasn’t around long enough to really explore.

    Finding a tea room looks to be as hard as finding a greek coffee shop here in NYC, or finding an old fashioned dark and dreary bar that only serves drink and nothing else. Where ordering a cocktail – a cosmopolitan or an appletini – would get you a blank stare and a scowl.

    PS: LOVE the old formica and polished steel and aluminum! lol

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