In the more civilised hours of the day, it is often the humble coffee bean that keeps Soho ticking. A stiff espresso slugged back over the till amid the bricolage of Algerian Coffee Stores. If you reckon all these pots, grinders and jars are some kind of frou-frou stab at new Soho chic, think again: this joint is over 130 years old. In a twist of Soho rationale that can only make you smirk, a single espresso here sets you back a pound, while a double espresso is… also a pound.
Every man and his dog knows that to slurp the caffeinated cup-and-saucered nectar at Bar Italia – perched on a stool and letting the cheesy pop classics waft by – is an hour well spent. Over the top of your novel, you may well shake your head sadly at the occasional laymen rushing by, as he scalds his hand on a cup of overpriced big-brand joe. Actually, Soho’s dabbled with commercial coffee for a while. In the mid 1960s, Algerian Coffee Stores had a neighbour in the Kenco Coffee House. In summer, it sold iced coffee topped with cream, and was, according to The Tatler, “well placed for housewives on a shopping spree.”
Kenco couldn’t keep up with Soho’s unrelenting pace. Neither, to be fair, could the 2i’s Coffee Bar – that caffeinated cradle of rock ‘n’ roll, and a Soho Story in its own right. An entrepreneur might have called the writing on the wall for the Partisan Coffee House on Carlisle Street, a lefty hangout serving ‘penniless intellectuals’. Quentin Crisp, Doris Lessing and the others mustn’t have bought enough cappuccinos or Whitechapel cheesecakes; Partisan didn’t last four years.
Another coffeehouse of that 1950s/60s explosion was Le Macabre – a concept that pimped up your afternoon slurp of coffee with a chamber of horrors backdrop. Punters gathered around coffin-lid tables and listened to a singularly ghoulish jukebox, while flicking cigarette bitts into Bakelite skulls. Le Macabre has long been six feet under.
The most legendary cup – or should that be glass – of coffee was served up in Soho too, but not in a coffee shop. “I want a drink to wake me up and f*** me up,” demanded the unnamed model to Dick Bradsell, on that fateful day in the Soho Brasserie in 1983. Bradsell had a think, clocked the coffee machine in the corner, and created a drink for the ages.