parties! I’m a working class man and this is a working class caff. All I want
is doom and gloom. And nothing’
Marioni, owner of the New Piccadilly caff, Soho, on being asked if there was
going to be a party when the caff closed, 2007.
New Piccadilly opened on Soho’s Denman Street in 1951 when Lorenzo was seven
and he started his work there peeling potatoes, the family business passed down
to him and he was the business owner when the caff closed in 2007. The site,
nestled round the back of Piccadilly Circus, was, naturally, earmarked for
redevelopment and so the New Piccadilly is no more.
New Piccadilly was a great example of the classic ‘Formica caff’, the theme of the interior being based on the Festival of Britain (of course!) and hadn’t been
changed since – red vinyl booths accompanied by matching red wall mounted
lamps, a menu as old as the business, canary yellow walls, plastic flower
displays, perfect squiggle-design Formica tables and, dominating the counter,
the giant pink espresso machine.
Regency in Pimlico is my particular favourite London caff, a gorgeous mix of
modernist type and Deco pomp meets egg and chips and gingham curtainettes. A
tiny lady with gargantuan lungs bellows each and every order from behind the
counter and so it’s your own damn fault if you miss your steak pudding.
is a sad thing to lose such beautiful spaces filled with beautiful things but
the New Piccadilly and The Regency are/were a small minority amongst the genre
of the British caff, most of which could not be described as beautiful. Often
the unique caff vernacular does not emerge from careful interior design but from
practical and economic choices – plastic seating and Formica table surfaces
which can be easily wiped clean, durable, resilient flooring tiles or lino,
cheap, consumable tableware – net curtains, malt vinegar, tabloid papers. So
why should we lament, or indeed even care, about their ubiquitous
1989 the American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, in his seminal text The Great Good Place, described the
concept of the third place, a social
space distinct from the two standard shared spaces of work and home but one
which is equally as important to its community. These places, argues Oldenburg,
are vital for the act of informal public gathering which is required for
effective democracy and for a functioning and engaged civil society. The
traditional caff is surely one such place – Oldenberg describes the ‘true’
third place as being defined by a series of characteristics, including that the
space should act as a social leveller that a person’s economic or social
status should not matter within that space thereby achieving a sense of
commonality amongst all of its inhabitants, he states that they should be
accessible (both in terms of local to many and free or inexpensive to
participate) and that the space should be inhabited by regulars who in turn
attract newcomers by making the space feel playful and welcoming. These
characteristics describe most experiences of ‘the caff’ – often the last place
in a city where a cup of tea costs 50p and a filling breakfast can be consumed
for a couple of quid, a space in which you can engage in discussion, people
watch, do a crossword or merely nurse a cuppa, in the caff it is possible to
spend 15 minutes or 2 hours, a busy space which allows for time.
It is this disappearance of a unique social space which I regret the most as I walk by the rows of chain coffeehouses which we have developed such a taste for. Of course our streets evolve and 'heart attack on a plate' all day breakfasts are perhaps not the best dietary choice but it would be a very sad day indeed that we could no longer get a Typhoo in a mug because we had drowned in a sea of skinny caramel latte with our name on it.