Hello, welcome to Caf Walk. I am really excited, and also much later in posting this than planned. This newsletter is about mapping the classic Formica cafes in (mostly) The North of England.
In terms of how many of these places survive in The North, my resources are finite, and I imagine that I may run out of cafes fairly quickly and this might have to start being about bingo hall architecture or leisure centre tiles, or anything that scratches the itchiness of needing to experience some small level of existing for a moment in a time-warp space. But for now, cafes. (and also maybe miniature railways somehow too, because often there is one near the other and luckily with age I have grown brave enough to unflinchingly weather the judgement of asking to go on a miniature train without being accompanied by a child)
I am fascinated by the idea of the classic café. Perhaps as a form of time travel, to exist for a moment in a space of many people’s collective social memory, or perhaps a desperate anchoring onto a sense of consistency in a world which is precarious and driven by novelty and growth. My Classic café awakening was in my early days of university when I was 21 years old and heartbroken (as 21-year-olds often are). I bumped into a friend who as an empathic offering took me to The Regency Café in Pimlico, an icon of its form, opened in 1946 and infamous for its cream Formica tables, red and white gingham curtains and possibly the best bit, the consistent boom of various breakfast items being yelled out; “SAUSAGE, EGG, BUBBLE, BEANS!” by the person behind the counter, a sort of fry-up town Cryer(A town fryer, if you will). The entire experience cheered me up profusely and by the time we finished our breakfast the hole in my heart was plugged up with sausages and eggs and beans. That wasn’t my first classic café experience but the first time I had found comfort in such a place through a romanticised nostalgic lens. When I was sixteen my first job was a brief stint clearing tables at the iconic Rendezvous café in Whitley Bay, but in the nature of being a teenager I simply Did Not Want to Be Doing Work and never truly saw the Formica tables I was continuously wiping, nor the glossy Parquet floors beneath my feet. However, and this is something I am experiencing in abundance in my move back to where I am from, there is a distinct beauty in suddenly recognising something you’ve seen for your entire life once you’ve returned to it having gathered an understanding of its context and history.
My name is Liberty, I make art and music and my interests include model villages, really good buildings and big stones. I recently-ish moved out of London back home to Newcastle after a quite intense summer of walking for hours a day to sit in as many of London’s classic cafés with leather booths and Formica tables as I could manage. Partly this was an exercise in trying to find my place in a city so vast that it felt at best anonymous and at worst lonely, partly out a sense of visceral panic in knowing that these places do disappear, and they may do in my absence without me ever having visited. And largely because I find an enormous sense of comfort in pockets of “the city”(a city?) which retain a sense of continuity and nostalgia.
I use the term Classic Café as there isn’t a standard term for them, simply “cafes” is too wide a term, but retro or vintage cafes seem to evoke a 1950’s style American Diner, a particular type of café I largely find myself ideologically allergic to, so I am borrowing the most accurate term from the main resource of documentation of such cafes that can be found online, Adrian Maddox’s www.classiccafes.co.uk. The ingredients of a classic café have probably shifted throughout the years, due to the passing of time and shifting of standards in what is considered “old” or “classic”. In Adrian Maddox’s 2003 book Classic Cafes (an excellent book that this project is directly inspired by and is both thorough and generous in its cultural references) he sets his standard for what is considered to be a classic café in the context of his early-2000s exploration –
“To make the grade, there had to be a sustained whiff of the 1950s and 1960s. A waft of early 1970s was acceptable, but only if based on the look of the smart older-style Wimpys. Any places that had fallen prey to KFC or McDonalds-style refits were ruled out automatically. A key indicator: the dread arrangement of red or yellow-orange plastic-moulded seating bolted to floors. An immediate passion-killer”
In the space of the nearly 20 years since this book was published, many classic cafes have either succumbed to modernisation or shut down completely, so I believe the definition of classic in these contexts has had to shift. Of course, a whiff of the 1950s or 1960s is ideal, but incredibly rare, especially outside of London. In my own personal exploration of these cafes I also find nostalgic comfort in the disavowed plastic moulded booths, despite them being the worst for people who like to constantly shuffle around in their seats(hello). To me, the platonic ideal of a classic café would be one with original 1950s/1960s features, Formica tables, chairs either wooden or with chrome legs and leather padding, or better still, original leather booths. I will also settle for a 1980s or even 1990s café, ones which retain a sense of a neoliberal optimistic time, perhaps with chandeliers directly contrasting with plastic design-classic cafeteria trays. In short; I will take what I can get that will make me feel like I am in another time, and I thoroughly recommend a sleuth through the original classic café website as a digital archaeological exploration of incredibly cafes no longer with us.
The reason I am focusing primarily on cafes outside of London is I believe there is an asymmetry in the mythologising of these spaces when they exist in The North as opposed to London. It’s true that a greasy spoon caf may be more common in the south, with ice-cream parlours perhaps being a more common equivalent genre of cafe retaining a sense of historic identity, certainly in Newcastle which is a city near the coast. There are plenty of savoury northern cafes on my list though.
I am fascinated by the pop cultural documentation of these places, largely the London ones, in music, which solidify a place in its cultural mythology even more, for example Bar Italia by Pulp or Mario’s Café by Saint Etienne. I am interested in the effect that this has on the way in which cafes begin to perform their own heritage, and whether that is something which effects the experience of going there.
In this exploration, I will be eating food. Eggs, cheese and onion toasties, banana splits (if I can ever find one) etc. What I will not be doing is reviewing food, I may mention if something is particularly nice, but what I enjoy about these spaces is the ability to exist outside of the culture of the pressure to constantly eat the most exciting and contemporary thing available. I believe that is no such thing as a bad cheese and onion toastie(maybe unless there’s mayo in it, but that’s more of a personal broigus I have with cheese and mayo as a combination), and I have never eaten a bad chip in my nearly-30-years of existence. I have found as the world around me gets more precarious, I often want to shelter in the comfort of foods such as chips and gravy, and I would never mind if it wasn’t the best chips and gravy in the world, because surely even the worst chips and gravy in the world is chips and gravy, still.
I try to take reasonably good photos of these places as I visit them, but my priority isn’t to document them as much as it is to map them and experience the place itself. A lot of this is because better photos of these places exist already, and I want to engage with these places with the utmost respect, including asking before taking pictures, and if it’s busy and full of people I often won’t take many as I feel there is a fine line between appreciation and fetishisation in terms of experiencing these places. Where my photos lack I will endeavor to fill the gaps with information from my memory and where you can see other people’s photos.
I have so much to tell you, and I am excited to get started.