Short History of London Coffee Houses and Cafes

by KathleenDuffy

Brand name coffee shops dominate the high streets of London. Love them or hate them, their legacy is fascinating.

Coffee was once associated with subversion, rebellion and creativity. Even as far back as the sixteenth century when coffee houses first appeared in London, they were dens of predominantly male creativity, political debate, philosophical speculation and downright dirty gossip, That’s because coffee, unlike alcohol, was thought to stimulate the brain.

It’s hardly surprising that coffee houses were known as ‘penny universities’. Rich or poor, you followed that sweet aroma, paid your penny and once inside you could read the newspapers, join in a debate, or just relax and listen.

The Variety of Coffee Houses in London

The Coffee House
The Coffee House

Each area of London attracted its own clientele. For instance:

  • In the City of London, Jonathans, Lloyds and the Jamaica coffee houses became associated with finance.
  • Garraways in Change Alley and Childs in St Paul’s Churchyard were the haunts of doctors
  • The Puritan coffee house in Aldgate was a hotbed of political debate.
  • King Charles II’s mistress, Nell Gwynne, opened The Widows coffee house in Islington where apprentices met to sow the seeds of radical unionism.

Garraways Coffee HouseIf you work in the City its highly likely that your job had its origins in a coffee house. The Stock Exchange itself operated for years out of City coffee houses.

It couldn’t last.

By the end of the 1700s coffee houses had turned into private clubs and coffee itself became the second class cousin to tea. (There were some exceptions, one being a working class cafe opened in Hungerford Market, London, in the 1850s by Carlo Gatti, an Italian immigrant. Although its clientele was working class families, it was famous for its coffee, ice-cream and light music.)

The 1950s - The Italian Coffee Bar

Bar Italia in London's Soho
Bar Italia in London's Soho

All this changed after the Second World War.

In the 1950s people began to look outwards, to Europe and America. Italian prisoners of war and immigrants who didn’t want to go home opened places where young people could gather to exchange gossip, dance to rock'n'roll and discuss movies. The coffee bar was born.

With their gleaming chrome Italian espresso coffee machines, clear Pyrex cups, shining formica tabletops and neon jukeboxes, coffee bars became the crucible of post-war youth culture

Sadly the coffee bar gave way to the growing trend for live music in pubs and even the famous 2-Is coffee bar in Soho had to close.

2 I's Coffee Bar, Soho, Blue Plaque

The 1960s - The Working Men's Cafe or Greasy Spoon

Pellici's Cafe in Bethnal Green, London
Pellici's Cafe in Bethnal Green, London

In the 1960s wonderful places where you could sit and have a coffee or tea, a cigarette and a chat – the working men’s cafes – became popular with the middle classes. They'd always been there, of course, but now they were infiltrated by artists, writers and students - even more so than in the 1930s.

It was great to come out of a club in Covent Garden in the early hours of the morning and then go into one of the cafes where the market porters were having their breakfast and have a massive fry up and a huge mug of tea.  Happy days!

In winter the windows steamed up and in summer the doors opened onto the street. Builders and postal workers, City gents, gutter press hacks and ladies of the night all mingled.

A fug of smoke hung in the air and students and CND supporters imagined they were in Paris conversing with Existentialist poets. Writers spread out their notebooks, and ordered a coffee that lasted all day.

Quentin Crisp

They observed the cast of bizarre characters whose unwitting performances would fuel their literary imaginations.

Authors like Quentin Crisp, Colin Wilson, Nell Dunn and Ian Sinclair have all captured the democratic spirit of the old ‘greasy spoon’.

Quentin Crisp - Gay Icon and Lover of Greasy Spoon Caffs and Public Transport

His Books are Available From Amazon
The Naked Civil Servant (Penguin Twen...The Naked Civil Servant; How To Becom...Manners from Heaven: A Divine Guide t...

Old Cafes and Coffee Bars Still Exist in London

Inside Famous Pellucci's Cafe, Bethnal Green, London
Inside Famous Pellucci's Cafe, Bethnal Green, London
c. K Duffy

You can still find places like this in London. They are snapshots of the city’s history, islands of sanity in a shrink-wrapped, polystyrene-cupped, corporate world.

Try Pellicci's in Bethnal Green - it's been opened since 1900 and the marquetry on the walls is the original!  

Dante's Sandwich Bar

Then there's Dante Sandwich Bar in Mayfair, or Bar Italia in Soho to name a few.


London is full of ethnic diversity and every district has a friendly local cafe where the price is right and everyone knows your name.






  • London's Coffee Houses Antony Clayton (Historical Publications Ltd, 2003)
  • Classic Cafes website
  • Coffee and Ices: The Story of Carlo Gatti in London Felicity Kinross (Felicity Kinross, 1991)


Updated: 08/19/2013, KathleenDuffy
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


KathleenDuffy on 09/24/2014

Hello Othellos - I am so pleased that you enjoyed my article. Yes, Bar Italia is a wonderful coffee bar. I hope you enjoy your next visit to London! :)

othellos on 09/16/2014

Very interesting article. Bookmarked for my next trip to London. I have been to Bar Italia though without knowing its importance in London coffee history.

KathleenDuffy on 08/23/2013

Hi Elias! Thanks for you lovely comments. Yes, Bar Italia is a good one, and Pellici's do great food - they have a review on Time Out's website:

EliasZanetti on 08/23/2013

Wonderful article, Kathleen and a fascinating history of coffee shops that fortunately is still alive. I was only aware of the Bar Italia in Soho (through Pulp's same titled song) that I always wanted to visit :) Next time I'm in London I will make sure to check out your recommendations as well!

KathleenDuffy on 08/21/2013

PS: Pellici's isn't a coffee bar, but a working men's caff ! :)

KathleenDuffy on 08/21/2013

Hi Mira - Bar Italia in Soho is central and very interesting! Pellici's in Bethnal Green, a bit further out, is fascinating. They've got a sort of museum upstairs now. :)

Mira on 08/21/2013

I'll definitely visit a coffee shop in London next time I go :). Thank you, Kathleen. (I'll start making a list . . .! I've got several ideas from you already :)

KathleenDuffy on 08/20/2013

Hi Kimbesa - Thanks for your comment!

kimbesa on 08/20/2013

Very interesting! What an enjoyable way to take in the culture of a place.

KathleenDuffy on 08/20/2013

jptanabe - Me too! I like caffs even better (they're a bit cheaper...)!

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