There's no place like a home-from-home

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Battered old sofas, comfort food, and not a bouncer in sight. Conran, eat your heart out - the home-from-home hang-out is the place to be, reports James Sherwood

THE GOOD times in London are rolling. Arrogant city boys brandish pounds 50 notes, London's beautiful people queue like penitent school children at The Saint and strict door policies and dress codes are the rule at bars like the Met. Eighties conspicuous consumption is back.

But truly cool Londoners are not playing along. They find the vodka-and- cranberry crowd, perched on impossibly high bar stools, plain sad. Now, an antidote is here, in the form of a growing number of home-from-home bars, with battered, comfy sofas, minimum architectural fuss, comfort food and not a bouncer in sight. "When I first discovered Home in EC2, they were playing Serge Gainsbourg, deep house and trip hop," says Mixmag review editor Dorian Lynskey. "It's the kind of music you play in your bedroom. Home is for people who don't want to make big deal about going out. It's cooler than a pub, but you're still having a drink with your mates and there's no trendy, out-to-be-seen attitude."

Open less than six months ago, Home is a basement bar/restaurant run by Des Byrne and Neil Gregory. The lights are dimmed, the sofas are undeniably knackered and the crowd are so relaxed they are positively catatonic. The village of artists' studios and galleries around EC2, plus downbeat chic club 333 Old Street, accounts for Home's grab-bag of hobos and bohos who treat the sofa bar as their clubhouse. DJ Dee C says, "There's a Greenwich Village vibe about EC2. Between the room above the Bricklayers Arms and Home, you'll meet the people who are really making London happen, rather than the ones who like to think they are."

Trying too hard is the kiss of death in London bars and clubs. Sofa bars have the familiar feel of the old coffee-bar culture. In such a media- wise metropolis, the average Londoner can spot a bar which has been marketed or contrived. Sofa bars are hip because of their spontaneity. The owners are young and they know what is right for their crowd. "Tactical was a cut-and-paste of elements we liked in cafes and bars," says Astrid Skelly, co-owner of Soho's Tactical bar on D'Arblay Street. She and partner Alan Houston opened Tactical last year as a cafe, bar, book shop and non-exclusive hang-out. "We wanted a place where people would feel comfortable spending a lot of time. We didn't want it too sleek or themed. Very soon, we saw crowds of students gravitating towards the sofa in the window and staying all day. It's a place where you can come alone or in a group and do your thing without pressure."

By definition, the sofa bar is the haunt of artists, writers and drifters who aren't restricted by conventional office hours and haven't been swallowed by the mainstream. The Chelsea Arts Club has always had that posed, Bohemian vibe, where sofas, beards and practically bald corduroy is compulsory. Though not a private club, Clapham's Tea Rooms Des Artistes is the grand- daddy of boho slouch. Time Out's Lorna V says the hang-outs particularly appeal to the young and penniless. "They are oases of sanctuary and security, places to write up your diary, wait for friends and watch the world go by. The lack of community in London makes people yearn for home comforts. I used to spend hours in Camden's Bar Gansa. I got to know the barmen and Steven always knew how to make a cappuccino the way I like it."

Alcohol is rarely the main reason for hanging out in a sofa bar. Like beatnik Paris, London's sofa bars are fuelled by fresh coffee. Soho's Blue Room on Bateman Street is like Central Perk in Friends, with a funkier edge. Formerly The Living Room - and home-from-home for St Martin's fashion students - The Blue Room has been chosen by Soho locals as their coffee shop. Former fashion industry girls Tessa Fergusson and Julia Peters kept the sofas but replaced the focus of The Living Room. "We were inspired by coffee shops in New York and Antwerp," says Peters, "to bring good coffee to London in a relaxing, enjoyable and hassle-free atmosphere."

The Blue Room is the place struggling actors wait for auditions, art students shuffle their portfolios and everyone is welcome. "There is a friendly buzz about the The Blue Room," says Peters. "We have our regulars, the Soho locals who will go where they can buy the best Italian coffee. But Tess and I want anyone who comes into The Blue Room to feel welcome. It isn't cliquey or in-crowd."

The Japanese are like sniffer dogs when it comes to youth culture and Tactical, The Blue Room and Home have all been featured in the Japanese style press, along with Alphabet, another recent arrival in Soho. "The Japanese are so superfly. They understand that what we're trying to do is an interactive bar. The kids who come here have as much input as we do when it comes to new directions for the bar," says Astrid Skelly. Photography agent Amanda Davies says, "I was drawn into Tactical because it was quiet in the daytimes. I stayed because the ambient music made me relax. As a woman, you are sometimes intimidated going into a bar alone. I don't want to be on show or uncomfortable when I want to spend some time on my own. Tactical and The Blue room are for cocooning and reading in peace."

Home, 100-106 Leonard Street, London EC2, 0171 684 8618. Tactical Cafe, 26 D'Arblay Street, London W1, 0171 287 28 23. The Blue Room, 3 Bateman Street, London W1, 0171 437 4827. Tea Rooms Des Artistes, 697 Wandsworth Road, London SW8, 0171 652 6526. Alphabet, 61 Beak Street, London W1, 0171 439 2190

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