Espresso Soho: coffee bars in the fifties

By Antony Clayton

The nineteen-fifties witnessed a renaissance in coffee drinking, as a result of the startling rise in popularity of the espresso bar.  Beginning initially in cosmopolitan Soho , the fashion for espresso bars spread throughout London and soon reached the larger cities and towns of Britain

Many London establishments promoted a ‘classless’ image and were popular with shoppers, tourists and businessmen.  The fifties coffee bars have, however, become most strongly identified in the popular imagination with teenagers and young people.  There were a number of practical reasons why the coffee bars of central London , and Soho in particular, should have attracted a largely teenage clientele during that period of rapid change in Britain ’s social history.  The interiors of coffee bars were lighter, brighter and more welcoming than the average pub of the time, which was off limits to anyone under twenty one.  Unlike pubs, coffee bars were not subject to licensing laws and consequently could stay open into the early hours of the morning, serving food and non-alcoholic drinks.  The male-dominated culture of the typical pub made it extremely intimidating for young women to enter alone – while coffee bars were seen as friendly, non-threatening public spaces where boys and girls could mingle freely.  It is hardly surprising therefore that they rapidly became such popular meeting places and social centres for young people, free from parental proscriptions and largely devoid of adults.

In cultural terms the coffee bars were important in disseminating the latest rock ‘n’ roll sounds thanks to the jukebox - often the focal point of the interior.  The music of Chuck Berry or Little Richard was as stimulating for these teenagers as the espresso coffee dispensed from the hissing Gaggia machine behind the steamed-up windows.  Coffee bars began to develop their own identities as they attracted clientele such as teddy boys or bohemians.

Coffee bar culture also contributed to the gay social scene, slowly emerging from a twilight world of ‘queer’ clubs, pubs and basement bars and furtive ‘cottaging’ in public conveniences.  Around Soho a number of coffee bars would have been perceived as non-threatening to homosexuals - the more equal gender mix, when compared with a strictly heterosexual pub, would have rendered the atmosphere more tolerant.  Old Compton Street today is the centre of a thriving gay business and entertainment culture

Inevitably, the novelty of the coffee bar experience began to wear thin, as old and unoriginal interior design ideas were recycled and as the principal clientele grew up and found other forms of drinking, dining and entertainment.  Coffee had become massively popular as a beverage, but many people were starting to brew it at home, buying the beans or ground coffee direct from suppliers By the early 1970s many of the small local coffee bars had closed.  In the latter half of the sixties live rock ’n’ roll groups had mostly moved out of the coffee bars and into pubs or clubs like London ’s Marquee. Teenagers spent evenings dancing at a disco, rather than clustered around the jukebox of a coffee bar.

This page was added by Tim Devitt on 29/03/2010.
Comments about this page

I don't know how you can talk about Soho coffee bars without naming the two most important - the Moka Ris and Les Enfants Terribles both in Dean St. They were both very early coffee bars without juke boxes which as far as I know only existed at the 2I's. Both opened around 1953 and had very different clientele - the slightly upmarket, architect designed and acclaimed Mola Ris and the home- made Les Enfants Terribles which was probably also the first discothèque in London. Read more on my commemorative site:

By adrian stern
On 20/03/2014

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