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5 March 2024

What is going on with Caffè Concerto?

The kitsch café chain offers unsettling lessons about London.

By Josiah Gogarty

London sells a lot of things: financial services, legal services, imported American sweets from shops in suspiciously prime locations. It also sells afternoon tea. You can have tea at the Ritz, Fortnum and Mason, the Dorchester or Claridge’s; Sri Lankan high tea at South Bank’s Lyaness cocktail bar; an oyster-heavy “afternoon sea” at the West End’s J Sheekey; tea on a converted Routemaster bus as you tour the sights of London; or on the Bloomsbury Hotel’s “Dalloway Terrace”. In the Shard, you can have normal afternoon tea on the 35th and 32nd floors, and Peter Pan-themed afternoon tea on the 31st.

You can also have afternoon tea at Caffè Concerto – “afternoon” being more of a vibe than a time, as the chain’s Covent Garden branch advertises “afternoon tea available all day” on a sign outside. Caffè Concerto is not something that Londoners usually think about. Its nominally Italian-inspired cafés are packed into the city centre and seem to exclusively serve tourists. The brand is uncannily anonymous. Amid heritage marquees – the dark green and gold of Harrods, the Tiffany-esque blue-green of Fortnum – Caffè Concerto’s browns and golds barely assert themselves.

But once I started thinking about Caffè Concerto, I found it hard to stop. One sunny morning, I decided to tour nine of its branches – to be the Iain Sinclair of the “saffron Spanish latte”, an exotic-looking drink they sell for £5.95. I began at one of its two cafés on the Brompton Road in Knightsbridge. The inside was marble, crushed velvet, lacquered wood and chandeliers. At the front of the menu was a page laying out the chain’s apparent origins: “created in Italy”, location unspecified, in 1920, and made famous by the vertiginous talents of the pastry chef Rinaldo Balzola.

Balzola is a real person, and there are multiple cafés called Concerto across Italy. But this is inspiration, not lineage: the London-based Caffè Concerto business in its current iteration is, according to Companies House, barely 15 years old. Mohamad Borjak (who has since left) and Maher al-Hajjar bought a company called Blushes in 2009, changing its name to Kings Road Brasserie and then, in 2011, to Caffè Concerto.

Neither man responded to interview requests. Their last media appearance was in 2021, when they launched a legal effort to reduce the accrued rent they owed to landlords after a rough period during the pandemic. The business was even briefly put on the market in late 2022. Since then, it has recovered, and the UK arm of Caffè Concerto made a profit of £9.4m in 2022. To achieve this on premises with some of the highest retail rents in the world requires a singular strategy: lure in tourists with an enticing but not intimidating level of glamour, then charge them at the sweet spot of casual holiday indulgence (sandwiches push £20, but afternoon tea for one, at between £28.95 and £38.95, undercuts posher rivals).

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As well as 20 cafés in the capital and one in Birmingham, it operates a cake-making business out of an industrial estate in north-west London. The website showcases various offerings, including a £840, 120-portion wedding cake. For a more reasonable £100.95, you can buy a rather unsettling christening cake with the soles of two baby feet emerging from a blanket, under which is presumably a newborn suffocating in sponge. “Yummy mummy to be Sylvia,” reads the inscription. Caffè Concerto also has a burgeoning international empire, with one branch in Paris next to the Louvre, and three in the Gulf, scattered across malls in Doha, Jeddah and Riyadh.

Caffè Concerto has no unifying aesthetic beyond kitsch. Some branches have the gilt and dark wood of a European coffee house; others, the over-lit pastels and whites of an Instagram trap. The first Knightsbridge café fell on the former end, and the waitress serving my espresso said it usually catered to European and American tourists. Two minutes up the road was a branch opposite Harrods, where Arabs would queue up before and after shopping. There was no queue when I arrived, but there were people from the Middle East, enjoying a rather glitzier Caffè Concerto experience: the front was clad in brown marble; inside was a wall of pink roses around a golden neon sign reading: “Love Concerto”.

Passing Hyde Park Corner, I reached the heart of Caffè Concerto’s domain: five branches in the 600 metres from Green Park to Shaftesbury Avenue, like a rash across the belly of Soho. One on Piccadilly, where I took a table next to a young Russian woman in a Celine T-shirt nibbling through a slab of chocolate cake, was done up like a Surrey grandmother’s drawing room: gold oval mirrors with floral moulding; beige-gold wallpaper with velvet floral patterning. The stairs leading down to the toilets were decorated with black and white photos of actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, John Travolta, Nicole Kidman and, puzzlingly, Andy Garcia.

Caffè Concerto takes naffness to a paradoxical place of deep authenticity. Its vibe of Britishness diluted into pan-European mush is probably how most people think of London; visitors to the city’s vibeless core far outnumber residents across its postcodes. The Covent Garden branch, where my odyssey ended, was a shiny monument to revealed preference: people say they want something unique and different, but mostly, they deeply desire the narcotic embrace of bland, globalised non-places. In this bright white room, I ate a caprese salad scattered with pomegranate seeds. On the speakers, a bossa nova cover of “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” slid into a smooth jazz cover of “Don’t You Want Me”. I could have been anywhere, but around me were at least a dozen people who had flown across the world to come here.

[See also: How Vice lost the future]

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