Less chic, more chow

Food - Bee Wilson longs for a London cafe that serves simple, decent food

What a depressing enterprise the modern British "cafe" is. With its eternal plastic-boxed sandwiches in fancy flavours, its long-life muffins that crumble the moment you open the packet, its hard chairs, its lined-up cans of Red Bull and bottles of mineral water and umpteen varieties of frothy coffee, it offers you a spurious "sophistication" but not anything resembling food.

You know those coffee shops - the kind that style themselves on Starbucks or Pret a Manger, but without even the corporate efficiency; the kind that think more about "modernity" and chrome fittings than what they are going to put in your stomach; the kind that would rather die than make any food on the premises; the kind that think £4 is a reasonable price for some nondescript sandwich. Having been to one too many of these spiritless places in the past few weeks, their prosperity bewilders me.

Here is a typical example. We visited the London Aquarium the other day. It was one of those pitiless, blustery mornings, with people's hats and tickets gusting off from their heads and coats as they stepped out from Waterloo Station. The London Eye was shut on account of the weather. (A slightly alarming thought - if this enormous upended merry-go-round can't survive a few puffs of wind, is it wise to commit your life to it in any conditions?)

After an hour of looking at the sharks and eerie stingrays, we were dying for lunch. The alfresco Costa Coffee shop, with its deserted tables and cold-looking staff trying to stop the coffee and cakes blowing away, didn't seem appealing in that weather. So we went to the indoors cafe at the London Aquarium, although we should have known better.

Even by the standards of the spiritless modern cafe, this was a demoralising place. All the fittings and airy lighting had been designed to give the impression of urban chic, yet the overall impression was one of debris everywhere. The people "running" the cafe - if running is not too purposeful a word for it - were surrounded by vast, messy containers of milk for which there seemed not to be room in the fridge. The only hot food available was New Covent Garden soup, which was advertised by displaying a few empty cartons. The soup cost £3, with a "fresh roll", and when it came, it had been slopped into a cardboard container. The "roll" was a single, soggy, slightly stale, preservative-tasting white industrial finger roll. "Does it come with butter?" we asked, a little mournfully. It did not, the waiters replied, unapologetically. As is usual in these cafes, the raison d'etre of the place was in drinks, every kind of fizzy, unwholesome orange sports drink and every sort of expensive Italianate coffee. Yet, having pumped its customers full to bursting of overpriced liquids, it disgorges them on to the street without any outlet. "Toilets?" came the kindly response. "You'll have to go to McDonald's."

A Mintel marketing report on British coffee shops published in February 1999 praised this new breed of cafes as "light years away" from the "traditional" greasy spoons they were increasingly replacing. In marketing-speak, "traditional" is code for "unfashionable" and "frequented by the poor" - or the "striving", as some euphemistically prefer to call them.

The observation is true, except that it is not an improvement. There is indeed a gulf separating the kind of cafes that at least countenance the possibility that you might want to be fed reasonably, at a reasonable price - whether they be an egg-and-chips caff, a family-run sandwich shop, a scones-and-cakes teashop, a Thai noodle cafe or even a New Age, vegetarian smoothie bar - and the kind of cafes whose "spacious" venues leave no room for cooking. Too unpredictable. Too slow. Too fattening. Too much trouble.

Today's affluent cafe consumers, as another Mintel pamphlet on British cafes reported last year, want "speed and convenience" and a "sophisticated, upmarket meeting place". They do not, however, want to eat. Only 16 per cent of those surveyed bought anything to eat when they visited a "branded" coffee shop.

Will this bubble of new and useless cafes ever burst? When the British market last got this saturated with second-rate cafes, it was the 18th century. By 1700, there were more than 2,000 coffee shops, known as "penny universities", in London alone. These were often "chaotic, smelly, wildly energetic and capitalistic places", according to one historian, and were known to serve coffee with rancid milk. By 1730, the vogue had died and almost all the coffee shops had converted to chop houses, as the grand new tea gardens sprang up. It would be pleasant to believe that, this time as well, the coffee houses will give way to orangeries selling lemonade, fine cakes and China tea in willow-pattern cups.

But we need not set our sights so high. I would exchange any number of chilly Goan crayfish wrap sandwiches, taken from inhuman chrome fridges, for a simple toasted sandwich of sliced bread and processed cheese - bland and tacky, but made, at least, with human hands, and on the premises of an ordinary caff.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The unusual suspects