I have been in search of a London-made coffee that is better than Bar Italia’s since I was 20. Although I was slightly seduced by the Monmouth Street Coffee Company a couple of years ago, visiting it quickly drove me mad. They deliver punchy, starkly caffeinated South and Central American beans that blow your head off. After a coffee there I used to ramble out of the front door, eyes rolling and teeth juddering, and make a series of caffeine-frenzied purchases in the underwear and stocking shop opposite. I once came home with three stockings and couldn’t fathom how it happened. My adrenal glands had melted by the time I had walked to the Underground.
Throughout all the mayhem and Caffe Nero-isation of the UK in the last fifteen years, Bar Italia has stood with fortitude like an old man in Soho, undeterred (undeterrable, even) unchanged, showing retro-tastic fortitude in an era of much change, and generally one of the few places in London where you can use non-UK currency and get rid of holiday Euro coinage you have recently discovered in last year’s soiled beach shorts. It doesn’t do closing. It’s been doing 24 hour opening for most of its sixty year history.
Throughout the day the clientele shift and alter, but I cannot tell you the interesting conversations you hear sitting amongst the outside tables, which are so close together that you are forced into the personal space of strangers. I haven’t tasted cappucino that is better anywhere else in the country, and I know of fewer pleasures more simply delightful than sitting in Frith St on a balmy afternoon and watching the world go by. Being Italian coffee, it lacks the punchiness and psychosis that I have experienced with the headier, more acidic, central American varieties. Bar Italia coffee is from the old world. It smacks of city break weekends in Roman squares in the early 1960s. It is earthier and simpler in taste yet it never fails to whack you over the head with a charming caffeinated jolt. I started most of my nights out in my twenties from here. It was always the perfect kick-off point – a double espresso to carry you through until you start ingesting shots of a different variety – before heading out to bars and restaurants. To me, one of the most exciting places was the scent and sight of the gurgling sounds and steam of expresso machines of Bar Italia at 7.30 on a Saturday night.
Of course, this is Soho. The cafe acts as a microcosm of the streets around it, and by 4.30am it’s a place where the euphoric effects of partying have played out and the sickly hangover threatens. At 4.30am its one of the only places in the nation where you can buy coffee and a cardiac-inducing brick of cheesecake, and eat it to the sweet sounds of angry voices shouting on Italian radio at very high volume. Not that much eating goes on here at 4.30am, really. Early dawn, and the night out has become fragmented and psychotic. So do the clientele – as Jarvis Cocker wrote in his 1995 song Bar Italia :”And now its morning / There’s only one place we can go. / It’s around the corner in Soho / Where other broken people go….”
That was back in 1995, when Soho was super and every boy with a media business card wandered around Cool Britannia (aka Dean Street) in a Union Jack T shirt dropping his aitches and pretending he hadn’t been to Harrow. In those days a night out wasn’t a night out if it didn’t end by vomiting on Keith Allen’s shoes. But Soho at 4.30am has always been Soho at 4.30am, before or after the self-referential media contagion that was Cool Britannia. It’s always terrifying in the middle of every city in England at 4.30am in the morning. The only people who are awake are those who have been abusing rather too many substances and whose brains are now breaking apart in small, mad, paranoid chunks, and mothers nursing newborns. Like the newborns, people who are at the end of a very big night out have few motor skills, are likely to vomit on the lady nearest to them, do not know where their mouths are and will have shat themselves by dawn.
This is the “broken” clientele you see in Bar Italia at 4.30am. I grant you that on any such day at this time there will be:
1 Pale, sweaty faces staring at themselves in the mirror wondering if its somebody else.
2 A man with bits of food stuck in his teeth shouting loudly about parking a bike in Kings Cross.
3 A drunk woman weeping and slowly emptying the contents of her handbag on the pavement.
Ah. Those were the days. The years have rolled by now and today the London Bluebird is a slightly tamer creature, and grazes there in humid Monday afternoons, staring at the roofs of red-bricked buildings and pretending to do the Evening Standard crossword whilst actually eavesdropping on the conversations around her. If at the end of the night there isn’t anywhere scarier than here, then in mid-afternoons of breezy spring-like days, there isn’t anywhere more delightful. Soho is like that; moods only happen in the superlative.
With the tiresome onslaught of the flabby, watery Starbucks-led domination of coffee chains, established neighbourhood coffee shops need our support more than ever. If caffeine kicks are necessary to get through a soupy, Saturday afternoon Oxford Street shopathon, you cannot do any better than sidling along to the London Bluebird’s happiest hangout here at 22 Frith Street and ordering a frothy cup of Italia’s finest.