My parents loved coffee. In particular, they enjoyed drinking well-prepared Italian espresso coffee. Every Saturday morning when I was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we used to drive to the car park by Jack Straws Castle, a pub near Whitestone Pond in Hampstead. Now, the pub no longer exists; it has been adapted to become a block of flats. The car park behind it, where we used to leave our car, still exists.
We used to walk down Heath Street, passing the open-air art exhibition if it was summer-time. Our first stop was a café housed within a building with a triangular floor plan, which still stands on the corner of Heath Street and Elm Row. The Pimpernel café/restaurant, which was run by Italians, no longer exists, but this is where my parents used to take their espresso coffee on Saturday mornings.
In those far-off days, espresso machines were not equipped with pre-set electronic controls as they are today. The person making the coffee had to pull down a leaver, which forced the hot water through the powdered coffee and into the cup waiting below it. The speed at which the leaver is pulled determines the rate at which the hot water flows through the coffee and the length of time that the water remains in contact with the coffee grains. These factors help affect the taste and quality of the final cup of espresso and are dependent on who operates the lever. Thus, using the manual espresso machines requires skill and experience. In my parents’ view those who worked at the Pimpernel had these skills. Whenever we visited this café, the kindly staff would give my sister and me a small matchbox sized piece of Italian nougat (‘torrone’). I remember that the piece of torrone was coated on two sides with thin edible rice paper. That there was paper which was edible really impressed my young mind.
There was another place, whose coffee gained my parents’ approval during the 1950s. This was the Bamboo Bar on Finchley Road in Golders Green. It was located under the Northern Line bridge which straddles Finchley Road close to Golders Green station and opposite a now disused covered walkway which was once an entrance to the station.
Although the walkway and the Bamboo Bar have been closed for many decades, there is still an eatery in the same place, the popular Artista Italian restaurant. The latter is much larger than its predecessor.
The walls of the Bamboo Bar were lined with bamboo. It was run by two Italian men, Lorenzo Fraquelli and Simone Lavarini. My parents, who both loved Italy and her people, enjoyed chatting with these fellows. In 1955, they opened the first branch of what was to become the now widespread, extensive chain of Spaghetti Houses.
As mentioned, the Bamboo Bar closed years ago. Sometime in the 1960s, another café, Bar Linda, opened next to the bus station at Golders Green. This souvenir of my childhood still survives and is thriving.
One branch of the Spaghetti House chain made headline news in 1975. It was the branch, now closed, in Knightsbridge. This was the branch where managers of the various outlets of the chain would meet occasionally to deposit their takings before they were deposited in a nearby bank’s night-safe. On the days of the meetings, this restaurant was closed to the public. On Sunday 28th September, three armed men burst into the restaurant and demanded the takings that had been collected from the branch managers, who were meeting there. They bundled the managers in the basement. Luckily, one of the managers escaped and alerted the police, who arrived promptly. The bandits held the managers hostage for three days before giving themselves up to the police. This event became known as the ‘Spaghetti House siege’. I am pleased to report that nothing remotely exciting as that has ever occurred during my years of visiting this restaurant chain.
The first branch, which still exists, stands on the corner of Goodge Street and Whitefield Street (see picture above). When I was a young boy, my mother often treated me to a meal at this restaurant. We became quite familiar with the staff.
Many years later in 1970-71 during my first year as a BSc student at University College London (‘UCL’), I used to treat myself to lunch at the Goodge Street Spaghetti House. It was more expensive than the numerous canteens that were available on the UCL campus, but the food was far better. The ground floor of this multi-storey restaurant, like the Bamboo Bar, had walls covered with bamboo. This has long since been replaced by newer wall coverings. Some of the waiters who were working at the Goodge Street Spaghetti House were getting on in age by the time I began my undergraduate studies. At least one of them used to greet me as she remembered me as a child. Not only had she worked at the Spaghetti House since its opening, but she told me that she had also been a waitress at the Bamboo Bar.
We still eat the occasional meals at various branches of the Spaghetti House chain. The food is usually of a good standard. A few years ago, I met a chap with whom I had been to school before 1960. I had not seen him since about 1971, and then only extremely briefly. We agreed to meet up at a Spaghetti House restaurant. He told me that he preferred meeting people on ‘neutral territory’ in places like restaurants, rather than in homes. Although he had aged quite a bit since we were both 8 years old, he was recognizable. Almost as soon as he met me, he said to me:
“Oh, I thought I was meeting someone else, not you.”