Thursday, 18 February 2010

A portion of Piccadilly and a slice of Soho

The New Piccadilly café established itself as a popular melody in the songbook of London life for over fifty years. Located just around the corner from the discrete red lights of Soho and blazing neon of Piccadilly, London's most famous café offered its regular patrons cosy warmth on dark wintry days and calm shade away from summer's shimmering heat and dust. 

I count myself lucky. True, I miss the place, being one of a legion of former New Piccadilly regulars who relished those days when the café's friendly waiters, clad in their colonial-style tunics, served us wholesome and satisfying grub. The familiar and friendly atmosphere would wrap itself around us as we sat on our wooden pews at formica tables, illuminated by Festival of Britain lights straight from 1951.

We miss owner Lorenzo Marioni (above), who came to Britain from Italy in 1949 and later took over the business from his father, Pietro. Lorenzo would orchestrate the lunch and tea-time rushes, accompanied by classical music on the wireless. Beside him hissed the New Piccadilly's huge espresso and cappucino-making machine, encased in enamel so pink that it would've brought a blush to Lady Penelope's cheeks.

In its 1950s heyday, the New Piccadilly welcomed Hungarian dissidents, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Maltese and Irish, all tough guys who occasionally threw tea cups and then their fists. In those austere post-war days, the café operated next door to the Casino de Paris strip club. Outside on Denman Street, 'women of the night' plied their trade night and day, often in 'pea soup' fogs. 

Smack bang in the heart of the West End, London's 'Theatreland' luvvies also flocked to the New Piccadilly. When the post-war fog and gloom began to lift in the 1960s, the New Piccadilly attracted a glamorous clientele, including British actress Diana Dors (below), who regularly sipped frothy coffee whilst enjoying the relative anonymity that the café offered.

When I first found refuge in the New Piccadilly in 2004, it seemed to have captured the nostalgic feel and flavour of 1950s and 60s London. Nowadays, the café is a part of my own personal nostalgia*. If only that atmosphere could've been somehow bottled and preserved. Sadly, Lorenzo was forced to close the business in September 2007, forced out by a yearly rent of £51,000 with the business rate and insurance on top. "It's £70,000 before I open the door - and I'm selling cups of tea at 50p," Lorenzo once remarked. 

The New Piccadilly, as London as egg and chips, has since been ripped out of Denman Street. That entire block is now due for a shops and office development, one of those pre-derelict glass and steel plazas boarded up with Starpizza and Express Bucks, devoid of character and tradition. Y'know the kind of place, a consumer void with no soul and no balls where it's hard to believe anything really interesting is thought, spoken or conceived.

Happily, Lorenzo escaped these corporate sorcerors, a cheery postcript to the tale of the New Piccadilly. Some of Lorenzo's former neighbours, shopkeepers on Denman Street, told me recently that Lorenzo is enjoying his well-deserved retirement.  "I'll be off on a yacht to the Caribbean with a blonde on each arm," Lorenzo joked with me days before he flipped the sign on the door to 'Closed' for the final time. 

Even if Lorenzo hasn't sailed off fully laden into a Caribbean sunset, it's good to hear he's finding some peace and joy. It's well deserved. After all, Lorenzo and the lads dished up good food and drink for Londoners over decades - served always with a slice of Soho and a portion of Piccadilly.

(Above): Infuriatingly, on some days, the New Piccadilly closed due to the café's appeal as a ready made film set. For instance, in the The Girl in the Cafe (2005), Bill Nighy plays Lawrence, a lonely civil servant who falls for the enigmatic Gina (Kelly Macdonald). Oi! Bill, Kelly, you're sat at my table! 

* nostalgia = past pain

Dors image: Image Shack

Paul Coleman, London, February 2010


Anonymous said...

Thanks to a friend I too was able to savour the specialness of the New Piccadilly when it was still alive. I will always remember it fondly as I continue to search the streets of unpaved London for omelette and chips at tasty prices. Where else in the centre of a city can you get cheese omlette chips and peas with bread and butter and a frothy coffee in a glass cup with sugar lumps (if required) for about six quid.

Starpizza and Express Bucks? Are they new? Oh I get you..them lot! A victim of its own success with 161 branches within a five-mile radius in Central London and the famous promise to open a new one every fortnight! How are Starbucks or Express Bucks taking over the world? Here's how:

"Goldilocks Pricing". Remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, where she found the bed that was not too small, not too big but just right. That's why Starbucks offer their drinks in three different sizes. The psychology is based on avoidance of extremes. If I offer two sizes, regular and large, most people will go for the regular. If I then add a third size, extra large, people will be drawn to the one in the middle. Even if nobody ever buys a single extra large (and the extra large size in Starbucks is a pint of coffee !) just having it on offer will persuade many customers to upgrade.

To put it simply, bring back the New Piccadilly.

A :)

Anonymous said...

I used to work a few doors along at the 'Casino De Paris' strip club back in the mid 70's and was often dispatched to the New Piccadilly in seek of one of the girls who was "on in two minutes".

I'd find them sitting there sippping a frothy coffee from a glass cup, wearing a fur coat with nothing on underneath...ahh happy days.