Meard Street is one of the most beguiling spots in Soho, a gorgeous parade of auburn, early-Georgian townhouses with a rare antique street sign from 1732 at its eastern end. Number 23, today a post-production company, is as picturesque as all the other houses; there’s no hint of what once dwelled in its basement.
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But go back 60 years and you’d find customers there sitting on black coffins, tipping ash into candlelit skulls, and listening to funereal music on the jukebox. The tar-coloured walls would be adorned with plastic skeletons, painted cobwebs, and frescoes of naked women twirled in the moonlight by libidinous ghouls. You’d see hip teenagers (‘cats’, as they were known) wearing sunglasses, sipping espresso, and debating the ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre and the jazz of Dizzy Gillespie on the coffins, punctuated by the odd guitar jam.
Welcome to Le Macabre, the weirdest and most wonderful coffeehouse to appear in London since the 18th century. Its slogan: Your coffee on a coffin [see video above].
Le Macabre was just one of a fleet of bohemian coffeehouses in tolerant, cosmopolitan Soho that helped to rejuvenate a dejected, bomb-blasted metropolis after the Second World War. Though vestiges of these venues are now hard to find, a present-day tour of the district reveals traces of their existence – if you know where to look.
Laid out from the 1670s as part of the burgeoning West End, Soho never quite reached the same dizzy heights of fashionability as neighbouring Mayfair or Bloomsbury. With its cheek-by-jowl townhouses, taverns, coffeehouses and gaming rooms, it soon became known for its raffish, bohemian air and, after the expulsion of Protestants from France in 1685, as a gathering place for refugees, artists, musicians, writers, other immigrants and, later, prostitutes.
Today, this creative, countercultural current is harder to detect thanks to the presence of high-street shops, skyrocketing rents, and the first signs of colonisation by investment banks. But Soho hasn’t quite lost its joie de vivre. Some of this energy can be traced to its ubiquitous coffee shops, from Costa Coffee to hipster joints such as Flat White, Milk Bar and Nude Espresso. All owe an unacknowledged debt to the espresso craze of the 1950s.
London’s espresso revolution was launched by, of all people, an itinerant dental-equipment salesman from Italy called Pino Riservato and rippled outwards from a premises at 29 Frith Street, near Shaftesbury Avenue. Today, it’s a jeweller and pawnbroker’s shop, which, with its grimy portico and dim interior, attracts little notice. It was similarly inconspicuous in 1953 when, as a bomb-damaged laundrette, it caught the eye of Riservato. Travelling up and down the country hawking his wares, he’d become mortified by the abysmal quality of England’s coffee, which was often made from chicory and coffee essence; real ground coffee was rare. Fortunately, he was related to a director of the Gaggia company in Italy and so set about trying to sell the revolutionary, high-pressure, steam-blasting espresso machine to English cafés. When no-one took the bait he went it alone, renovating the ruined laundrette, and opening London’s first espresso bar: Moka Bar.
Unlike London’s drab cafés, Riservato was determined to offer Londoners something modern and cool (then a new word lifted from black American jazz musicians). He kitted out his venue with a curvaceous Formica-covered bar, metal stools, bright lights, and on the bar, the pièce de résistance: the gleaming Gaggia espresso machine, ‘a great burbling, wheezing, spluttering monster [which] would grudgingly excrete some bitter caffeinated essence’ to amazed customers.
Moka Bar was hugely popular. It was soon serving over 1,000 glasses of espresso a day, sometimes crowned with foamed milk and chocolate sprinkle to form another novelty: cappuccino. Since renting property in central London was reasonably affordable and coffee bars thrived on a makeshift, speakeasy-style aesthetic, Riservato, who sold Gaggia machines to other risk-takers, triggered an espresso bar boom. By 1960, there were over 500 in London, many clustered in the West End, and Soho in particular.
Two of the most eye-catching were situated on Old Compton Street, Soho’s ‘high street’. At number 59 is a green plaque attached to the tiles of a Vietnamese restaurant proclaiming with some swagger it is the ‘birthplace of British rock ‘n roll and the popular music industry’. The 2i’s Coffee Bar, which stood here from 1956 to 1970, was indeed a crucible of rock and roll and a proving ground of musical talent. The ‘i’s’ refers to the Iranian brothers – originally three, then two – who launched the establishment; large eyes were painted in the basement.
Just as news and gossip had been the lifeblood of London’s 17th and 18th-century coffeehouses, so music was hotwired into the DNA of Soho’s coffee bars at a time when rock and roll and uniquely democratic skiffle music was infiltrating Britain. Under the new management of Australian wrestlers Paul Lincoln and Ray Hunter, teenage hopefuls took to the stage in the 2i’s infernal, seething basement hoping to impress the music producers, managers and agents there to scout new talent. Two teenagers who made an impact were filing clerk Harry Webb and seaman Thomas Hicke. They would become Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele.
Unlike the drearily uniform chains of present-day Soho, the 1950s coffeehouses were colourful and distinctive, if a little kitsch and brash for ‘square’ tastes. Neighbouring the 2i’s was the Heaven & HELL Coffee Lounge, opened in 1955 beneath a brothel. Upstairs was ethereal with white walls and sunflower lights with cherubs’ faces; the HELL component – downstairs, through a giant devil’s mouth – was painted black with mock flames shooting from the walls. It was lit by the red eyes of devil masks.
Photographs and films of Soho’s coffee bars reveal a youthful, cosmopolitan clientele comprised of advertising executives, musicians, poets, journalists, actors, bon vivants, West Indian immigrants and, in particular, teenagers, whether dressed as Brylcreemed teddy boys or scruffy, Gauloise-smoking bohemians. Teenagers were beginning to find their voice within society, enjoying higher levels of disposable income once the austerity of the post-war years was relaxed. Too young to drink alcohol in pubs, and unexcited by youth clubs or Lyons Corner Houses with their stolid bourgeois clientele, they found in Soho’s coffee bars the chance to forge their own distinctive identities away from the watchful suburban eye: to pose, flirt, sing, smoke, and watch the latest live music with a plenteous supply of coffee, Coca Cola and cigarettes.
It wasn’t all teenage kicks and rock and roll. The Partisan Coffee House at 7 Carlisle Street was more emphatically political than Soho’s other coffee bars, a politburo of brooding left-wing intellectuals opened in 1958 by the radical historian Raphael Samuel beneath the offices of the New Left. In what some right-wing commentators gleefully took as a metaphor for communism’s fatal flaw, it was never able to translate demand into healthy revenue, due to its ‘socialist-friendly’ policy of allowing customers to sit and debate for hours without ever even buying a coffee. In 1962, it went bust, and is today a nondescript outpost of capitalism: an office block.
Sadly, none of the old coffee bars survive (the 22-hour Bar Italia on Frith Street, opened in 1949, predated the espresso boom). The teenagers who had been their most enthusiastic patrons grew up and by the mid-‘60s, they faced stiff competition from nightclubs and live music venues, many coffee bars seeming démodé by then in any case. Their legacy lives on in the area’s continued weakness for espresso-based coffee, though as the character of Soho evolves and becomes more gentrified, it’s hard to envisage another effusion of youth-fuelled creativity sweeping through its maze-like streets anytime soon.
Historian Dr Matthew Green is the author of London: A Travel Guide Through Time, published by Penguin, and leads immersive coffeehouse tours through historic London with Unreal City Audio.