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At Arthur’s Cafe

May 20, 2011
by the gentle author

This is Arthur Woodham of the celebrated “Arthur’s Cafe” – in the Kingsland Rd since 1935. At eighty-four years old, Arthur is still running around his magnificent shining cafe, taking orders and serving customers with sprightly efficiency. Possessing the grace, good manners and handsome features of a young Trevor Howard, he is a charismatic figure, venerated in Dalston and throughout the East End – so imagine my excitement to see Arthur waiting in the doorway of his cafe in anticipation of my arrival.

My heart skipped a beat and I ran across the road to shake his hand. Then, taking advantage of the lull between the late breakfast trade and the early lunch trade, we sat down at the window table to enjoy the sunlight, and I found myself close up to his neatly styled grey locks and immaculately shaven jowls, while Arthur fixed his liquid grey eyes upon mine and commenced his story.

“I was born in Bethnal Green, and in 1935 we moved over to the Kingsland Rd and opened the cafe. My father was Arthur too and his cafe used to be further down the road, opposite the Geffrye Museum. If you was trying to buy a cafe, you tried to buy one with accommodation above, so if things got quiet you could rent the space, but I’ve always lived up there all this time.

Once I left school at fourteen, I worked with him behind the counter and I helped out before that too. I was the eldest son and you had no choice – you had to go into it whether you liked it or not. In those days, my father used to make his own ice cream and sarsaparilla, and my grandmother helped out in the kitchen with the washing up. At first, when the war came, I didn’t want to go into the shop but I have no regrets. I was about fifteen when war broke out, and I worked in the cafe all through the war. They dropped a bomb on the shelter across the road at the Geffrye Museum and my father kept open all night to make everyone a cup of tea. I’ll always remember one man was very bad, he lost thirteen in his family.

When I was a boy, it was either coffee shops with wooden floors or cafes that were more like sandwich bars, but after the war cafes starting doing hot dinners, roast beef, steak pie, lamb chops. I run my cafe the old fashioned way, we don’t do frozen stuff, it’s all fresh. I get up around twelve thirty/one o’clock, but people won’t believe you if you tell them that. I cook my own ham and cut all my chips by hand. My grandson gets in at five fifteen and we open at seven, serving breakfast until eleven thirty. No toast after eleven thirty and no chips before twelve. At eleven thirty we clean up and put serviettes and glasses on the tables, and I go upstairs and put on a clean coat. We have a different class of people for lunch. This is a working class cafe, we serve plain English food, we don’t serve pasta like some do.We’ve got a good mixed clientele, a nice class of people, white people and black people.

I like it, this is my life. You’ve got to like it to keep in it. I meet people. I speak to people. In the cafe, if you like it, you make a lot of friends. I’ve been serving people for over fifty years, people I grew up with. I opened up here when I was twenty-one in 1948, my father gave me a hand for a while and then he closed down the old cafe. I’ve been here ever since, four hundred and ninety-five Kingsland Rd. It’s been a cafe as long as I can remember and I’m eighty-five this year.It was me and my father and now it’s me and my grandson – since he was a boy, he’s worked for me – that’s three generations. I’ll go on as long as I can, I’m eighty-five on Christmas Day. The Pelliccis, they’re friends of mine – I’m the oldest cafe in the Kingsland Rd and they’re the oldest cafe in Bethnal Green.”

By now it was eleven thirty, no more toast would be served, and it became imperative that Arthur go upstairs at once to change his coat in the time-honoured fashion, whilst serviettes and glasses were swiftly laid upon the tables, as the tempo of the day’s proceedings went up a notch in anticipation of luncheon. Yet this flurry of activity allowed me the opportunity of a snatching a few words with Arthur’s grandson James, who in spite of his youthful demeanour  revealed he had been there twenty years. “Since I was twelve, I worked here in my school holidays,” he confessed with a shy smile of pride,”And then my grandfather asked me to work with him, and I did.”

“My grandfather is an actor, and this is the stage where he performs best,” James continued, as if to introduce Arthur who appeared on cue from upstairs, now changed into an identical but perfectly clean white coat and seemingly revived with a new energy. “Do you think you will still be here at eighty-five?” I whispered to James across the table. “If I’ve got my grandfather’s energy, I’ll still be here!” he replied with an emotional smile as Arthur breezed past, making sure that everything was in order before assuming his heroic position at the head of the steel counter – as he has done each day since 1948 – tea towel over one shoulder, ready for whatever the lunch service would bring.

You can watch a film about Arthur here.

“I remember those custard tarts my dad was holding, they were threepence each” - Arthur at at twenty-one years old when he opened his own cafe in 1948 with the assistance of Arthur, his father. Inset shows, the third generation Arthur and his son James who works at Arthur’s Cafe today.

Arthur and his grandson James who has worked with him for the past twenty years.

Arthur arranges serviettes in readiness for the lunchtime rush.

James rustles up a mean sandwich.

“My grandfather is an actor and this is his stage where he performs best.”

Arthur’s wife Eileen lends a hand.

The lull between late breakfast and early lunch while Arthur goes upstairs to change into a fresh coat.

Arthur  with his old friend Terry Dunfred.

Arthur Woodham

You may like to read about Maria Pellicci, the Meatball Queen of Bethnal Green.

24 Responses leave one →
  1. May 20, 2011

    My cafe of choice since I was a boy. I don’t order my food here..it arrives on the table in minutes. I have had brief flirtations with “trendy”cafe’s – but Arthur’s is without doubt – the Guv’nor. Thanks Arthur and James for providing me with impeccable ham sandwiches over the years. An East end institution.

  2. Rowena permalink
    May 20, 2011

    What a heartwarming story to hear that this cafe is still going. I must go there. And Arthur looks amazing for 85. He is so handsome and photogenic.

  3. jo watts permalink
    May 20, 2011

    i LOVE cafes like this, i live and work in east london but not close enough to this one. wish our local cafe was as good as this one, mind you, my colesterol would go through the roof if it was :)

  4. paul permalink
    May 20, 2011

    I can’t wait to go to Arthurs Cafe. Many thanks for revealing it.

  5. May 21, 2011

    This was a delightful read for a saturday morning. Kudos to Arthur for being so devoted and proud of his cafe and further kudos to James for keeping the legacy alive!

  6. May 21, 2011

    wow what a handsome man and what a lovely feature .
    It really is the traditional cafes of the area which seem to be the perfect meeting point of such passion and hard work and inspiration , humble , true and so very inviting !
    As Ghandi said about pride in work giving happiness , not material things , the pride that people like Arthur have in their work and doing it reliably for years , believing and knowing his establishments importance in so many peoples life
    Thank you Gentle , for communicating this to us.

  7. Ana permalink
    May 22, 2011

    I love these slices of life and history. It’s wonderful to read about a small business that has withstood McDonaldisation. Seriously, who needs the rubbery rubbish they sell at Subway anyway?

  8. May 24, 2011

    Another wonderful story and Arthur’s Cafe is truly a great local institution and landscape. Arthur, James and all the staff, including Eileen performing her magic in the kitchen, are all doing a great job in serving their customers not just good, fresh, wholesome food in generous portions, but also providing friendship and a meeting place for the locals.
    Dalston is changing; younger, smarter, hipper people are frequenting the bars, clubs and restaurants and that is great, but Arthur’s cafe has a lot to teach them about serving customers with passion, pride and authenticity. Arthur and his family have served generations of local customers and we’re proud to be their friends and neighbours since they started up- Jeffrey and all at William Gee (just over the road from Arthur’s)

  9. David Raab permalink
    May 29, 2011

    we have been Arther’s Baker for all those years our three generation family bakers has moved from Star Bakery 72 Dalston Lane to Raab’s Bakery 136 Essex Road . As we continue to supply Arthur with his bread to this day from my gradfathers day to this I can say that Arthur’s cafe has not changed it’s way a bit and what a wonderfull thing that is because we all love it just the way it is .

  10. peter hardwicke permalink
    June 1, 2011

    Yes indeed! Raabs bakers, another great institution – we would use Raabs bakers when Arthur shut up shop for the August break, or if we were out and about. One of the boys (Mad Martin) would drive to Essex Road from Hackney – and quite often forget something. ….My sausage rolls! By the way, I painted the signwriting on your shop David, many, many years ago.

  11. David Raab permalink
    June 8, 2011

    Thank you for your custom Peter hardwick much appreciated, and wow you say you done our sign for us, that is strange because we was just talking about getting the top one re done and wondered what happened to you , so if you get back in touch we might have some work for you . We could pay you in sausage rolls if you want :-) .

  12. Sergio (Italy) permalink
    June 18, 2011

    Hi!
    I looked at your café in the BBC Learning English program about the Father’s Day – here in Italy we celebrate it on March 19, “San Giuseppe” (Saint Joseph). This summer in July I’m coming to London on holiday. I like eating in friendly places, so I hope I’ll be able to find you. Please, could you prepare me a nice fresh glass of white sparkling wine?
    P.S. I apologize for my English even though I’m not sure I wrote really in… English!

  13. alan mcveigh permalink
    June 26, 2011

    one of the few great cafes left in london run by two great people.

  14. Ruth permalink
    September 11, 2011

    For shame, I live round the corner & still haven’t been. Must be remedied. And to David Raab, we once lived a short step away from the Star Bakery & after my first child was born my husband would bring me your incredible doughnuts to keep me going in the first couple of housebound weeks. We were gutted when the shop closed, but now head for special treats to Essex Rd after school is out! Always good to see a queue as it means you’re well supported & rightly so.

  15. April 5, 2012

    Long live ARTHURS….. best food in the East end.

  16. KIM permalink
    October 24, 2012

    My mumVera is Arthur’s cousin (Aunt Norah’s daughter), and she has thoroughly enjoyed reading all about this wonderful Cafe. She recalls many a happy time spent with Arthur’s brother Terry when they were young in the old Cafe.

    We all send love and best wishes for the continued success of this wonderful family business.

  17. Terry Basson permalink
    December 13, 2012

    Arthur and his cafe are an inspiration as was my dad Arthur William Basson cafe. It was called Pop’s Cafe in Woodbridge 1944.

    Reprinted from Sunday Pictorial September 3rd 1944.
    My dad was born in Stepney London

    POP
    May I (and without causing him embarrassment, I trust) call for a vigourous round of applause for Mr Arthur William Basson, the big hearted proprietor of a cafe in Woddbridge Suffolk.

    He calls it Pop’s Cafe, Well, Pop , step right up and take a bow!
    Because, passing Mr Basson’s establishment a few days ago, I found fixed to his window; ” Any London evacuee who cannot afford a meal can have one here Free. You are welcome.”

    Unlike certain people who, but for the law of libel, I’d cheerfully name, Mr. Basson believes that an ounce of help is worth twenty tons of pity. Splendid, Pop!

  18. pam permalink
    July 2, 2013

    I used to come here when I lived in Newington Green many years ago, am 68 now… and I still travel from Richmond to go there and meet my brother in law Les..when Arthurs goes, I shan’t go back to Dalston so keep on doing all that lovely home cooked ham Arthur!

  19. Darrell permalink
    December 8, 2014

    I have been going there for over 30 year’s.
    Without doubt THE ONLY cafe to go to.
    The food is the best in town & so are the people there :)

  20. Mavis Mumford permalink
    June 28, 2016

    This is amazing you Arthur are my couson .
    Your mother Sarah was the sister of my mum Dolly Stevenson.
    I remember going into your dads cafe with my dad .
    I live in Australia Mavis Mumford née Stevenson .
    Would love contact.

  21. mavis Mumford nee Stevenson permalink
    June 28, 2016

    I would love to visit this cafe, Arthur you are my couson.
    I live in Australia. Your mum Sarah and my mum Dolly were sisters.
    The Stevenson family.

  22. Vera Templeman nee Hunt permalink
    September 7, 2016

    Hi Mavis,
    Arthur is also my cousin. My mother (Norah Woodham) was Arthurs dads sister. Your whole family lived underneath us in flats in Hollybush gardens, Bethnal Green.
    Hoping we’ve bought back some memories,
    Vera

  23. Nora permalink
    December 11, 2016

    I lived at 56 Dalston lane between 1964 until 1975 and I remembered Star bakery where I used to get the best doughnuts ever every day as a young girl, and would buy lots of breads and cakes for the weekend, I was sad it closed but today am glad to discover that it was owned by David Raab and that they moved to Essex road, where I must now pay a visit. I remember Arthur’s café also going past it on my way to school, I took all of the good food and service for granted in those days I realise now. Today Greggs’ bakers do a few doughnuts and eclairs and specialise in take away coffee and sandwiches , no where is the selection of cakes we used to find everyday at Star bakery. The service at Arthur’s is also a rare experience when you go into a café where no one remembers you and that personal touch is missing. Glad to see Arthur still at it and looking very handsome at his age, long may his café continue.

  24. Mark ashdown permalink
    May 4, 2017

    It don’t matter what you order be assured it’s fresh and of the highest quality.
    If I’ve missed breakfast at arthur’s then stewed steak it is.

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