Soho: Café Man

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A slice of Soho and a portion of Piccadilly

 

“It’s £70,000 before I open the door – and I’m selling cups of tea at fifty pence”

– Lorenzo Marioni

The New Piccadilly café sang a popular melody from the songbook of London life for over fifty years, writes Paul Coleman.

People discovered the New Piccadilly by ‘off-roading’ on Denman Street, just around the corner from red-light Soho and neon-blazing Piccadilly Circus. London’s ‘best-kept-secret’ café offered regular patrons cosy warmth on dark wintry days, and calm shade away from shimmering summer street heat and dust. A legion of former New Piccadilly regulars – many of them ‘theatrical types’ – relished the café’s friendly waiters, clad in colonial-style tunics, serving wholesome and value-for-money platters. A familiar and friendly atmosphere wrapped itself around punters pewed at Formica tables, illuminated by period lights that looked like they first shone at the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Pink lady   Owner Lorenzo Marioni came to Britain from Italy in 1949 and later took over the business from his father, Pietro. Lorenzo would orchestrate the lunch and teatime rushes, accompanied by classical music on the wireless (or the radio, for anyone aged under 25). Lorenzo operated the New Piccadilly’s huge espresso and cappuccino-making machine, encased in enamel so hissing pink that even Lady Penelope and Parker would’ve blushed.

Lady Penelope: ‘Get the Rolls, Parker. We’re off to the New Piccadilly’.

Parker: ‘Yes, M’lady.’

Knuckle sandwiches   In its 1950s heyday, the New Piccadilly welcomed Hungarian dissidents, Italian and Greek slick boys, Jewish chancers, Maltese mobsters and Irish gangmen – some real tough guys who liked to hors d’oeuvre with hurled teacups before a main course of fisticuffs and knuckle sandwiches. In those austere post-war days, the café operated next door to the Casino de Paris strip club – and the girls inside only their fur coats would take refuge in the New Piccadilly. Outside on Denman Street, ‘women of the night’ plied their trade night and day, often in ‘pea soupers’ that many Americans – bless ‘em, thanks to Dick Van Dyke – still imagine fog ole London Town.

London’s West End ‘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 more glamorous clientele, including British actress Diana Dors, who regularly sipped frothy coffee and appreciated her fellow café-goers’ respect for her privacy.

Nostalgia   The New Piccadilly continued to croon an old 1950s London number well into the Noughties. Sadly, the Pink Lady has long sung her last cappuccino hiss. The New Piccadilly is a part of our own personal nostalgia*. Central London’s ‘prime retail market’ compelled Lorenzo to close the business in September 2007, a decision forced by a yearly rent of £51,000 – and that’s before the business rate and insurance bills plopped onto the doormat. “It’s £70,000 before I open the door – and I’m selling cups of tea at fifty pence,” Lorenzo once remarked.

The New Piccadilly, as typically London as the egg and chips Lorenzo and the guys used to whip up, has been ripped out of Denman Street. That entire block is now due for a Starpizza and Express Bucks development – another Black Hole of Consumption, with no soul and no balls, and where it’s hard to believe anything really interesting is thought, said or conceived.

Postscript   “I’ll be off on a yacht to the Caribbean with a blonde on each arm,” Lorenzo once joked, just a few 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, hopefully he escaped his corporate tormentors to enjoy a deserved New Piccadilly postscript.

After all, Lorenzo and the guys dished up good food, tea and coffee for Londoners over decades – served always with a smile, a slice of Soho and a portion of Piccadilly.

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?

 Words: © London Intelligence, London 2013