The classic Gaggia coffee machine sits and gleams chrome and cherry red with a neat row of espresso cups lined up on top. The jukebox in the corner blasts out a hot combination of bebop jazz, The Shadows, Marty Wilde, Vince Taylor. Welcome to the 1950s and a brave new Soho world of frothy coffee.
In 1945 those clever chaps in Italy altered their espresso machine. A slender valve under high pressure produced a thick crema that resembled the precise colour of Capuchin monk robes – and the Cappuccino arrived. Cue a young Italian dental salesman with a bit of nous who lugged the new machine over to London, and the fateful day in 1953 when pneumatic starlet Gina Lollobrigida opened The Moka at 29 Frith Street and heralded the Age of Formica and Cool Coffee Bars.
Frothy Coffee and Hot Birds
“Frothy coffee and hot birds!” proclaims Eric Morecambe in The Intelligence Men (1965). “Or is it the other way around?”
Caffeine in the UK used to come in the form of Camp – a foul, chicory essence mixed with hot water in the time of war rations and a fried slice. Imagine the excitement of Formica booths and clear cups, and a dark chocolate-coloured taste of La Dolce Vita.
You might think that coffee came to England with two green mermaids on the cup, but coffee houses and meeting places with beverages flourished throughout the Middle East in the 16th Century. As trade links grew between the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe, so too did the establishment of coffeehouses there.
The Age of Enlightenment goes hand in hand with the consumption of caffeine and the rapid spread of coffeehouses:
- Venice in 1629
- Oxford in 1652
- Paris in 1672
- Boston in 1676
The numbers reached into the thousands by the 1680s and so began the First Great Age of the Bean.
Businessmen, merchants, and politicians came to drink and stayed to discuss politics, religion, philosophy – great social minds like Voltaire and Rousseau, for example. The early published tracts like The Spectator and The Tatler found their first audiences in the houses, which gave birth to the modern day newspaper. Then the popularity of coffee waned, superseded by tea rooms and pubs, and the caffeine lost its appeal.
And then, just like Venice in 1629, our Roman friends stepped back in again, and coffee culture in the UK went from black and white to full colour.
Coffee Comes to Soho
And although The Moka started the fad, the 2i’s Coffee Bar became the white-hot centre of it all.
Australian wrestler and later promoter Paul Lincoln – aka Dr Death – and business partner Ray Hunter opened the doors to 59 Old Compton Street on April 22nd, 1956. With room for just 20 patrons upstairs you walked past doorman Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin), and squeezed around the espresso machine while Lionel Bart (songs Living Doll, and From Russia with Love, shows Oliver!, Fings Ain’t What They Used T’be) and Mickie Most (producer The Animals, Lulu, Donovan, Suzi Quatro, Hot Chocolate, Herman’s Hermits) served you sandwiches.
A narrow, and by all accounts dismal, staircase led to “The Most Famous Music Venue” in England: 18 inches square of planks set on top of milk crates where the almost, not quite, and about to become famous played in front of an old Boer War microphone and out of a couple of speakers on the wall.
Promoters and managers like Jack Good (Shindig!, Six-Five Special, Oh Boy!), Larry Parnes (Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Vince Eager), and Don Arden (Small Faces, The Move, ELO, Black Sabbath) came to watch, poach, and sign acts like:
- Tommy Steele
- Cliff Richard
- The Shadows
- Vince Eager
- Terry Dene
- Wee Willie Harris
- Adam Faith
- Joe Brown
- Clem Cattini
- Eden Kane
- Tony Sheridan
- Screaming Lord Sutch
- Johnny Kidd
- Ritchie Blackmore
- Big Jim Sullivan
If a bomb went off, British rock and roll (and the 60s counterculture that followed) would cease to exist.
The brothel next door to the 2i’s housed the two floors of the Heaven and Hell Coffee Lounge underneath. Opened in 1955, Heaven on the first level featured white walls and sunflowers, along with cherubim light fixtures. Through a giant devil’s mouth door and down below in Hell, black-painted walls featured flames and devil mask light fixtures with eyes that glowed red.
Bohemians flooded into the capital along with CND protesters, artists, writers, poets, actors, producers, and so much more. They left behind the world of the far more sedate Lyons Coffee House where mum and dad enjoyed a middle-class cuppa and set up their own twilight world of loud music, fervent conversation, and the birth of a new, shiny, young British culture.
They made the short leap from 50s teenagers to 60s taste-makers – by the mid-1960s 40% of the UK population were under 25 years old. No one worked at the same place for 25 years and a gold watch anymore. Heady and artistic times beckoned.
The Partisan Coffee House at 7 Carlisle Street boasted young politicos and protesters who sat and argued and plotted over their espressos and cigarettes. Le Macabre at 23 Meard Street, replete with tables made out of coffins and skull-shaped ashtrays housed the esoteric and arty crowd. The new coffee bars displayed art for sale on the walls by artists who couldn’t or wouldn’t get into galleries. Directors discovered actors. Publishers found writers. Producers signed musicians.
The Cat’s Whisker at 1 Kingsley Street followed in 1956, the first venue with a jukebox, and another coffee bar which offered live music. The crowd invented the hand jive, pre-director Ken Russell photographed them, and founder Peter Evans went on to open the Angus Steak House chain, and as a restauranteur hosted the great and the good of the 60s and gave them places to mingle, plan, and take over the world.
Hundreds of espresso bars sprang up throughout the 50s and 60s as pop music and youth culture exploded. And then, aside from the Golden Egg and Wimpy who held on by the skin of their teeth, the coffee boom in the UK died in the early 70s as the three-day week, political unrest, and economic downturn gripped the nation.
But in 1971 down by the harbour in Seattle, and in a small roaster in Lambeth a third revolution began with the modern rash of conglomerate coffee chains and the arrival of Starbucks and Costa Coffee. As a nation, we now know our ristretto from our macchiato and the statistics back this up. To date there are:
- Nearly 24,000 Starbucks worldwide
- Nearly 3,000 Costa Coffee worldwide (plus 3.5K vending machines)
- Over 700 Café Nero worldwide
- As of 2016, there are around 51,000 coffee shops in the US alone. Estimates put UK independents at around 6,500.
The Modern Caffeine Fix
My late friend Richard Gladman hated these coffee chains with a passion. He considered them bland, cookie-cutter, and insipid and abhorred their tax dodges too. Nirvana for him came in the form of an in-house roasted, independent cup of joe served in funky and quirky surroundings.
So what happened to the one-off espresso bars of Soho and what legacy did they leave behind? Closures included:
- 1958 The Cat’s Whisker
- 1962 The Partisan Coffee House
- 1970 The 2i’s
- 1972 The Moka
- 1974 Le Macabre
- 1975 Heaven and Hell Coffee Lounge
Today’s independent café culture centres around bloggers and freelancers – the coffee bar switched its role from cultural meeting house to the home office. I write in a small selection of the quirkier and more independent coffee outlets in Brighton – places like Presuming Ed, Marwood, Redwood Café, the Coffee Counter.
I want an eclectic playlist, comfortable sofas and chairs, walls full of art and posters, creative people, coffee roasted in-house. I want a home from home with my shot of caffeine. And when I visit London, I go to Bar Italia and step back in time for a coffee-flavoured, chocolate and pear tart moment. Situated opposite Ronnie Scott’s in Frith Street, Bar Italia stands as one of the very last survivors of the Soho espresso revolution. Founded in 1949 by Italian immigrants who served the Covent Garden market stall holders, they installed a Gaggia a couple of years after The Moka.
Today tourists, Londoners, and Italians cram the tiny space and spill out onto the pavement chairs to watch Soho go by and catch the football on the wall-mounted TV. If you close your eyes and sip your coffee in reverent mouthfuls, you can hear the sound of rock and roll and all the ghosts of Bohemians, Mods, dolly birds, pop stars, and more. Long live the espresso bar!