The birthplace of hip Britain? 1950’s cafés take a bow

17 08 2010

Our society is becoming ever more isolated as the young lock themselves away playing with their PCs, Nintendo DS, Wii, X-Box , communicating via social media sites, instant messages and text. I wondered what entertainment the youth of the 1950’s or early 1960’s may have turned to.

A few clicks on the all knowledgable net, and I learnt that post war teenagers were bored as much as the youth today. That’s until the emergence of “self-service café’s”, which had not existed before.

These self service cafes were also critical in incubating the arts and cultural movement now called “the Swinging Sixties” in the UK. Think Swinging London and you quickly recall the creativity, innovation and success led by celebrities such as Mick Jaggar and all the Rolling Stones, Mary Quant, Zandra Rhodes, Twiggy, David Bailey, Tommy Docherty, Cliff Richard and the thousands of other names too many to list here. Where did all these people network and meet to hatch new schemes?

Back in the early1950’s the role of local coffee and snack bars was still hazy. Have you ever considered who were the fore-runners to the now multi-national coffee chains that now dominate our high streets? What was their role in society and what influence did it play in our nation’s history? Did you know that the first coffee shop in London, UK was opened in 1652 and was called “Jacob at the Angel” in St Peter, East London? Not surprisingly the design and the role of the coffee shop or café have changed many times since those days.

In between the first and second world war a new spirit for informality in eating practice sprung up – and the first sandwich bar was opened in 1933, called Sandy’s Oxendon St, London. Prior to the second world war the youth of Britain had bars, pubs, a few tea rooms – but were typically dull venues used mainly by travellers, serious drinkers or working class men. The war years certainly changed the image and customer profile for pubs but post war an even more important venue was born – the Café and snack bar.

There were few nightclubs and venues for the young and lower and middle classes, and so with the advent of the Italian immigrant moving to the UK and opening their style of café, the face of the greasy spoon was changed forever. An influx of Italian families building on their homeland knowledge and catering skills settled in Clerkenwell (Little Italy) and the new style café was born. Their
style soon spread West to Soho and eventually expanded all over the capital and the country.

By 1953 coffee bars were springing up all over Soho. The first was “The Moka espresso bar” at 29 Frith St. opened by Gina Lollabrigida, it became the model for many classic “Formica” cafes to come. Suddenly the youth of that time had an interesting place to hang out, socialize and make new friends. They became the location to be seen.

One such location was the Mayfair Café, Chase side, near Southgate Tube Station, N14, in north London that became an instant hit and popular with local youth. Sporting celebrities of that era: the players and manager of Arsenal football club regularly popped in – as their practice pitch was nearby. TV/film studios also spilled out their writers, producers, actors/actresses and other staff to enjoy this new style venue. The café attracted rock n’ rollers (mods and rockers), beatnik baby boomers and a whole new post-war set of beautiful people. It should be noted that in mid 1960’s 40% of the UK population were under 25 years old so the desire to secure and establish social meetings places was high. Certainly the Mayfair snack and café was one of the early self-service style cafés where young and old could order sandwiches/toast or tea and experience the new style strong Italian café. Nevertheless, this being post war Britain, a lot of tea was still being ordered and consumed.

Original entrepreneur and business owners, were an English couple who also managed restaurants and other businesses. To increase the appeal of their café, it’s no surprise that they instantly offered my mother a job: Beautiful 18 year old Italian girl, dead ringer for Natalie Wood, sporting those wonderful 50’s A line skirts and dresses and a speedy snack preparer/cook and conscientious worker to boot. She certainly added street cred to the English owned snack bar together with the slightly older Italian manageress.

The café was open 6 days a week from 8.45 am – 6.30 pm. A long day for those working but local youths complained the hours were not long enough. Once these cafés were shut, there was no where else to go other than pubs or expensive dance halls.

Decorated in the new style 1950’s café style: the owner lovingly built all the counters and tables following the new style and fashion: tiled flooring, stainless and glass counter with red vinyl and chrome stools; red and yellow table and chairs dotted around the café. Customers were served from the fuming tea urns and new style Gaggia coffee machines – receiving their beverages in the hot new Pyrex (modern glassware) cup and saucers. This being post war Britain, the preference for tea was still upper most and therefore the drink of choice for the majority. In the back room there was the prized jukebox pumping out the new hits such as “That’s alright mama” from Elvis Presley, Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock”, or Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”, much to the delight of the youth who crowded the café mainly on Saturdays. As there was no dance licence, technically people could only listen to the music, but on occasion some couple would jump up to practice and hone their new rock and roll dance moves.

Clearly this venue played a strong part in youth culture of its’ day. This café, together with many others that had popped up all over London and other cities in the 1950s, incubated a whole generation of musicians, artists and thought leaders. One could argue that without these important melting pots, a venue for the young to socialize and develop plans, the “swinging sixties” may never have happened. Britain’s leadership role in youth culture, music and fashion can clearly be attributed to these classic cafés and it’s sad that so many of these independent places have closed down.

One should also ponder if our current youth are in danger of missing out on the opportunities that their grandparents experienced back in the swinging sixties. Perhaps due to more isolated social habits, less and less face to face interactivity could actually shrink the power of brainstorming, networking and developing the next big something – be it in music, sport, film and so forth.

To learn more about these lost gems and also to seek out those that are dying or hanging on by their finger nails, link to the informative “Classic Cafes” website. Alternatively, stop surfing the web and arrange to meet your friends for a chat in your local independent cafe, if you can find one! Who knows where it will lead…

If you know about any “lost” café still serving up the wonderful old style decor and menus do let us all know and give them your support!


What’s really taking place in our high street? Why are these wonderful old cafés dying? To learn more visit the following website where you will find more facts/stats/history/films and music that have influenced and much more.

Extract “From Classic Cafes”

The flooding of high streets with coffee outlets isn’t simply natural economic change ¬ it’s a planned programme of extinction: the corporates negotiate exorbitant leases, raise ‘comparables’ (local rent levels used to calculate rent increases) and then put competitors out of business.

They have massive leverage: huge marketing budgets, extensive political contacts, unlimited resources. And they use them mercilessly.

This gives them a blatantly unfair economic advantage over local shops and services. (For one Leicester Square rental alone Starbucks paid £1.5m. And they will often run expensive sites at a loss to squeeze out opposition.)

“Landlords now set such astronomical rents that only multinationals can afford them. But two of the country’s richest landowners actively discriminate against the corporates. The Mercers Company, one of London’s biggest landlords (it has owned much of Covent Garden and eight acres of the City since the 16th century), forbids chain stores on its streets. It is wooing independent shops by offering them incentives, such as a 15% rent reduction. “If we allow Covent Garden to be another high street, we would be competing with every other street in Britain” Michael Soames, the company’s surveyor, said recently.

Howard De Walden, the estate that owns much of London’s Marylebone, is also spurning the chains. Andrew Ashenden, De Walden’s chief executive, has accused councils of ruining their high streets by favouring the highest bidder and not promoting individuality: “The multiples have become so dominant that they have ruined the high streets and taken away their character,” he says. “The high street should be a mix and that is something that most local authorities ignore.”

Most insidiously, coffeeshop culture is a form of Identity Marketing: the appropriation of next-generation consumers through the targeting of ‘progressive’ agendas and youth markets. The corporates create ‘lifestyle options’, engineer ‘buy in’, funnel consumers in and then close down the competition.

The flooding of towns with coffee shops is key to this Identity Marketing. The fall out is retail blandness across the high street.

Almost as bad is the accompanying cold, dead brand-speak that counsels: ‘Exceed expectations; Have strong values; Reach out to communities’ even as it negotiates the rent-rises that will level them.

For their far-reaching impact on modern Britain, we owe our grand old cafes an immense debt of gratitude. And a serious duty of care.

Keep ’em Classic. Kick out the Clones!




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