My plan is to post an annotated list of six things around a common theme every Sunday. It might be serious, it might be silly; it might be international and universal, it might be insular and parochial; it might be long-winded and rambling, it might be perfunctory and short. However, it will be a way of trying to discipline myself to write a bit more, and most importantly, a way of preventing myself from watching the Hollyoaks omnibus (that solitary vice that weakens and leads to self-denial). I don't know how long I'll keep it up for, but I intend to do it for at least six weeks (and maybe multiples of six weeks thereafter).
The actual ramblings will be behind a cut, but the topic of the week will be in the cut title so that you can accurately determine whether you can be arsed to read it or not. Nor am I forcing you to participate by posting a list (or even an isolated example) of your own. But you could if you really want to, of course. We're very laissez faire about these things here.
So here's the first one. And the randomly selected theme for the week is:
Six London Cafés That I Used To Love, But Which No Longer Exist
Former Location: Carnaby Street (top end)
Why I Mourn It: This was a place I had walked straight past for years, thinking it was one of those really horrid tourist-trap cafés, but one day I went in and I'm glad I did. They specialized in grilled flatbread sandwiches called Piadinas, which came in savoury or sweet varieties. Yum. Really nice milkshakes and cookies too. Also, just a nice place to sit around in: diner-style seating and staff that were very relaxed and sweet. I miss this place most, out of all the six, and still get sudden cravings for a pecorino and pesto Piadina, and know of nowhere that this craving can now be sated. Wah.
What's Taken Its Place: An inferior café called Leon, that sells overpriced smoothies and houmous wraps. I'm not amused.
2. Maison Blanc
Former Location: Thayer Street/Marylebone High Street
Why I Mourn It: Now, there is no shortage of French patisseries on Marylebone High Street – there's Patisserie Valerie and there's Paul – but Maison Blanc had the edge for two reasons. Number one, a much more casual self-service set-up where you could just wander in and out, without being seated by waiters and getting overformal. And number two, the cakes were really something else. The chocolate and raspberry tart alone was the kind of cake I could have a meaningful long-term relationship with, but with the closure of the shop, our love has been brutally cut short before its time. (Sniffle.) There are actually several other branches of Maison Blanc, but they are in places like Kensington and Hampstead, where I never go. An important quality to me is that a café be located conveniently to fit in with a day of activities, and that's what this one had to give it the edge.
What's Taken Its Place: A shop selling hideous clothes aimed entirely at overpaid female stick insects.
3. The T-Bar
Former Location: Baker Street
Why I Mourn It: This was Whittard's well-meaning but short-lived attempt at joining the coffee bar explosion. Its unique selling point was the fact that it wasn't just a coffee bar, but a tea bar (hence the name). Along with the usual double latte half-caffs, you could actually buy proper pots of tea, made with proper tea leaves, in any of the flavours and varieties of tea that Whittard's sell (and that's a lot of varieties). Now, doesn't that sound like a great thing? The sort of thing Britain should have more of? And it was a great thing.... but for less than a year. You'd have thought they'd be on to a winner, and perhaps they would have been, if the shop had been in Covent Garden or Soho, but no – they chose to locate it in a rubbishy spot in the no-man's-land halfway down Baker Street, where no one ever goes, and therefore it closed down really quickly. Whittard's may make nice tea, but apparently they make crappy business decisions. Tragic, really.
What's Taken Its Place: For a while it was a Jacqmotte outlet (see below), which didn't last either. It's now Segafredo, an Italianate coffee chain that sells overpriced panini that taste of washing-up liquid and is still almost always empty. Wild stab in the dark: it's not long for this world either.
4. Coffee Republic
Former Location: Hanover Street (off Regent Street)
Why It Was Good: Now, I do realize it seems a bit odd to miss a specific branch of Coffee Republic. After all, there are plenty of other branches around, and anyway, with their slightly dull cakes and slightly burnt-tasting coffee, they've always been also-rans compared to the Caffè Neros and Costas of the world. But this particular shop had one excellent feature, however, which was its basement: full of large comfy sofas, never deserted, but never so full that you couldn't get a sofa, and best of all, with air-conditioning that was always on at full blast, all summer long. Non-British readers may not realize this, but air-con is not all that common over here, even in public places. Now this branch is shut, I can't think of any other central London café that has it. It was only knowing about this basement that enabled me to survive the heatwave of summer 2003 – I could run to it and spend a whole reviving afternoon in its blessed cool. If we have another heatwave this year, where will I go? Where? I wilt just thinking about it.
What's Taken Its Place: It's about to become a hairdressers. What use is that? Eh? Eh?
Former Location: Various branches – Hanover Street, Goodge Street, Southampton Row, Maiden Lane, Baker Street.
Why It Was Good: And if it's weird to miss a branch of a chain, it's probably even weirder to miss a whole chain. But Jacqmotte had many fine points. Very nice coffee indeed, sold in sizes labelled "small", "medium" and "large" (rather than having stupid names like Tall, Extra Oblong, and Last of the Now Extinct Coffee-Flavoured Mammoths). Very nice cakes, including startlingly lovely almond macaroons. AND they gave you little squares of Belgian chocolate with every coffee, AND you got a choice of milk or dark chocolate. It's the little things, see. Still exists in mainland Europe, apparently, but that's not much good to me, is it? Can't exactly pop over to Belgium every time I fancy a cuppa. Hmph.
What's Taken Its Place: All sorts of things, none of which are as good.
Former Location: Wardour Street (the Oxford Street end)
Why It Was Good: Brera is also a chain, but this was the only central London branch, and it didn't feel particularly chainy. It was also open quite late, had a relaxed European vibe (i.e. it was always full of Italians). It also had a brief phase of selling very nice cakes indeed, which I think came from Selfridges cake department.
What's Taken Its Place: Briefly continued under the name Fretta, but without selling nice cake. Then changed completely into a very strange café called Cookies & Cream. The weird thing about it is that it sells absolutely terrifying cakes. I call them The Cakes of Fear. You may think it's impossible for a cake to be frightening, but believe me, these ones are. Think of something that the witch in Hansel and Gretel would have left out to lure naughty children with, something which some evil twisted mind might consider to be tempting, but which is actually made of poison and rats. These cream-laden gateaux are unnaturally coloured, totally artificial and utterly unappetising. And it's not just the way they look. I had a cup of coffee in there recently and the sheer SMELL of sweetness pouring off these cloying cakes was enough to make me feel slightly ill. I reckon that alasdair ought to go and photograph them, to try and capture this fear and allow me to share it with you all. Argh. I shudder just thinking about it.
Tune in next week, when I'll be rambling on pointlessly about... errr... well, I'll think of something.