Is it real cafe, or instant?: London needs to look to Manhattan for fresh inspiration on coffee shops

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The Independent Online
There's a scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral where Hugh Grant meets Andie MacDowell in the elegantly distressed surroundings of Covent Garden's Dome cafe. A waitress there says this brief piece of celluloid exposure has attracted a wave of new customers: a case of life imitating art in an imitation French setting.

Given the success of the film, this may not be very surprising. But it is hard to imagine there being a similar response if the scene had been shot in one of the those pokey side-street affairs specialising in stewed tea and chipped crockery.

Sadly, these two extremes reflect what currently passes for cafe culture in the capital. At the top end of the scale London boasts an increasing number of chic brasseries and bijou wholefood cafes; at the bottom, a rash of cramped and queasy caffs.

Of the former category, places such as the Dome, Cafe Rouge and Cafe Flo are ideal for that solitary coffee accompanied, perhaps, by a chocolate croissant or a croque monsieur. But anyone feeling the urge to eat something more substantial must be prepared to pay substantially more than they would in a greasy spoon. The food may well be superior, but the cost is hardly likely to entice the masses away from Burger King or the sandwich bars.

Let's face it, London has enough French-style cafes. They tend to be expensive, snooty and about as authentic as the Louis Vuitton luggage at Petticoat Lane. It is time to look elsewhere for inspiration. In New York, the gap between upmarket and downmarket cafes appears to be far less pronounced than it is here. Generally, prices are low, portions are vast, service is brisk and for the price of one cup of coffee you can drink more than is medically wise. By contrast, the best deal you are ever likely to get in a Cockney caff is a complimentary mug of freeze-dried with your undercooked breakfast special.

The fact that Manhattan's cafes go out of their way to please might explain why so many New Yorkers are total strangers to the kitchen. Gothamites may not know how to poach an egg, but they know where they can get one on wheat, rye or wholemeal bread with a side order of pastrami. But from Hackney to Hounslow, if it is not on the menu, it is not going to be available.

Of course, London already has a number of American restaurants. For the most part, these tend to be high-class hamburger joints all too eager to trumpet their transatlantic origins. Another Planet Hollywood or TGI Friday we don't need. Simple, spacious, clean, affordable, seven-days-a-week, early-till-late diners we do.

This might sound like a call for the further Americanisation of London. Far from it. Coffee shops based on the New York model would look no more out of place than the many existing faux French establishments. Probably less so. To all intents, they would be London cafes, serving a wide spectrum of Londoners: places where you can order corn beef hash as well as salade nicoise.

In Stoke Newington, a cafe-patisserie called The Blue Legume has just opened for business. Small, friendly and reasonably priced, it looks set to be a great success. I hope the French brasserie chains do not take this as a cue to expand their North London empires. As they would say in the New York: 'Enough already]'

(Photograph omitted)

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