Some restaurants you go to for the food. Others for the ambience. A few are old friends and you go for the company. Such is The Coffee Cup on Hampstead High Street. A long-standing, long-loved institution.
‘It’s not a restaurant,’ cautioned Rex Cowan, its most regular regular who comes in every morning, ‘it’s a place where you can have food.’ Rex first went to The Coffee Cup on the day it opened, ‘in 1953,’ he told me, ‘even though it says “established 1954” on the awning. That’s wrong. Back then it was run by a little Polish Jewish couple and I used to call her Mrs. Nutty Brioche, because that’s what they had, little nutty brioches and one of the new Italian coffee machines.’
I was first taken to The Coffee Cup by Julia Hobsbawm, Professor of Networking, maven, doyenne, impresario, everyone’s favourite and most influential older sister. Julia founded Names Not Numbers and organises conferences and roundtables, collecting and connecting intellects: neuroscientists, writers, politicians, sculptors, historians, film makers — not the boring old great and the good, but the gold mine, gold minds of the interesting and the curious. I was having one of those in-between confused moments in my life and I needed her advice. Julia suggested The Coffee Cup. At first glance it looked unprepossessing. Brown striped awning, a few tables on the pavement. I walked over a cracked mosaic lintel into a dark cubby hole interior; oak paneling, red vinyl banquettes nestling in corners around corners, private niches.
‘So tell me what’s going on,’ said Julia giving me a big hug. I felt immediately comforted and cossetted. It was the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Julia ordered an omelet. I had a coffee. The Coffee Cup is that kind of place; you can have an omelet or a jacket potato if you feel peckish, your companion can just have a pot of tea or a cup of coffee.
A couple of months later we met back at The Coffee Cup for lunch. I had good news: I had just sold my first novel. Julia was excited because she had set up a post-Brexit forum and lots of companies and people had already signed up. ‘I’m really very proud of this place,’ she told me, analysing its Jewishy Americano feel, a little bit diner, a little bit deli. It’s open seven days a week, from 8 am til midnight. You can eat in or take-away. ‘I don’t know anywhere else in London that has a dessert cabinet like this!’ She pointed to the revolving refrigerated display of cheesecake, apple pie, pecan pie, tiramisu.
The Coffee Cup has a menu that basically says: have whatever you’re in the mood for, have your eggs the way you want, mushrooms on toast or a sandwich; tuna salad or a plate of spaghetti, their famous goulash soup, a decent bit of veal or just a big generous slice of chocolate cake.
I ordered a carrot cleansing juice thing from the juice menu, a new innovation that Julia did not quite approve of. ‘What juice do I want?’ I asked the waiter, confused by the choice. ‘The Big Mama,’ he replied without batting an eyelid. ‘Are you profiling me?’ I joked. ‘Yes.’ ‘So why am I not a Minty Morning Heart Warming?’ I looked over the variations of celery apple beetroot orange and then had to agree with him. Yes, apparently, today I was in Big Mama mood. The waiter was Romanian and said he knew about eighty per cent of the customers by name; most were regulars. ‘Of course Mr. Rex! He’s our most popular customer!’
In the mid nineties The Coffee Cup was threatened with sale and closure. Rex and several other devoted customers fought a long battle to save it. They got the Highbury and Islington Gazette involved and organised rallies and concerts almost every weekend for months. Finally the Villa Bianca group, who own a number of North London restaurants, bought it. They haven’t changed it much. ‘They took the old rotten carpet out; that’s about it,’ Rex told me when we had breakfast one Sunday morning.
Rex is 89 years old, canny, with one of those long-lived looping life stories that could fill a William Boyd novel. He’s been a shipwreck treasure hunter, an award-winning documentary producer … ‘but you’re not writing a story about me are you? We’re here to talk about The Coffee Cup.’
Rex remembered The Coffee Cup from a bygone era when Hampstead High Street had a Woolworths, two bakeries, a haberdashers and a garage that sold petrol. ‘When it was bedsits for £5 a week.’ The Coffee Cup was a meeting place for all sorts: lefties, pols, spies, actors and others with cross-over activities. Michael Foot, David Owen, Peter Sellers, George Blake, Melvyn Bragg, Esther Rantzen, Emma Thompson, John Fowles, Judi Dench, Margaret Drabble, Salman Rushdie — ‘Do you know Elias Canetti?’ Rex asked me. ‘He won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He used to come in here in the seventies. He wrote Notes from Hampstead. Have you read it? No? Well not many people have.’
Rex’s daughter Alex and her husband joined us. Alex remembered how her father used to bring her and her sisters to The Coffee Cup every Sunday, ‘fathers and daughters treat. We were allowed to order one drink!’ ‘Coffee and connections, that’s what makes The Coffee Cup,’ said Alex. ‘How many plans have been hatched here’ waxed Rex, ‘how many people have met and fallen in love, had affairs, how many marriages were broken and then patched up again, how many deals made?
One time Rex found himself talking to a Belgian who wrote detective novels, who also turned out to be a mathematician working on a new discipline called Chaos Theory. Rex ended up making a documentary about it for Channel 4 which won lots of awards. ‘This place is where you can meet totally random people, sit over coffee and learn things and secrets.’
Julia and I crunched our way through a plate of fried zucchini. We talked about boys and men and women and Hillary and nail polish colours and holidays. I ordered a club sandwich. Julia ordered an omelet again. ‘I appreciate their American portion sizes here, they really understand appetite.’ Julia had just finished writing her new book, Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in the Age of Overload, and we toasted this with good-girl lunchtime mineral water.
‘I love this place,’ she said. ‘It’s the familiarity we all crave,’ she said, ‘not just me because I’m the champion of the face-to-face thing. There’s something very pleasing about coming again and again to the same place. It’s local, it’s no frills, no fuss, but it takes pride in itself. I come here with girlfriends, I come with the children, I come here to see Rex who I have known all my life. It’s very well run, they’ll catch your eye when you arrive. They look after you. Especially the HMBWI people like me: High Maintenance But Worth It. People asking, “can I have vegetables instead of chips” or “I don’t want tomatoes but I want a salad”.’
The club sandwich was unmemorable. I only noticed it wasn’t very good, because I am supposed to be writing a restaurant column, but we were talking so much and the bill was so small (£23 for both of us) that frankly I didn’t care. Rex told me he seldom orders anything to eat at breakfast. If he comes in during the evening he’ll order the ‘wonderful veal paillard with spaghetti’. The Coffee Cup is not about the food, silly, it’s about the people. I paid the bill, but we didn’t want to stop talking. ‘We should go around the corner for coffee,’ said Julia. ‘Ironically coffee is not The Coffee Cup’s strong suit.’