So Long, City Corner Cafe
The beloved City Corner Cafe in Middlesex St closed this week after exactly fifty years of trading and today, as a tribute, I republish this feature from March 2011 written by Novelist Sarah Winman with pictures by Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven.
The City Corner Cafe was exactly as its name suggested – on the corner of Middlesex Street and Bishopsgate, for half a century. I approached it one crisp morning when the sun had not as yet delivered the promise of warmth, and its steamed windows lured me towards the prospect of delicious smells and chat and coffee inside, and, of course, towards a meeting with the owners, the delightful Delfina Cordani and her son Alexander – a formidable double act.
Time stopped as you entered. This was a sixties cafe – a film set almost – with blue vinyl banquettes and panelled walls and a beautiful well-loved coffee machine by the renowned W.M Still and Son. And I imagined the deals done at these tables over the years, the stories read, the hands held, the illicit whispers of love, and I felt grateful, that here was a cafe of character and charm and warmth, a far cry from the generic, sterile cafes of today.
On the back wall was a beautifully polished mosaic from 1836 depicting the story of Dick – later the eponymous Dirty Dick – a prosperous city merchant and warehouse owner called Nathaniel Bentley, who fell into an abyss of dirt and decay and self-neglect after his fiancé suddenly died on their intended wedding day. Apparently there were two more mosaics to accompany this story, Alex told me – one of the deceased’s funeral carriage with white horses and the other of a Town Crier, both, however, were missing.
Delfina sat down with her coffee. She was an engaging woman, blessed with a youthful spirit and a mischievous smile that belied her eighty-two years. Brought up on a farm in Italy, in Emilia Romagna, she was one of seven children and first came to London as a nursemaid before going to work at Great Ormond Street Hospital.
“At eight o’clock exactly, I used to make coffee for the matron and the governor. I made it by burning the dry grounds of coffee in a saucepan and then adding the boiling water. They loved my coffee, and I still have the saucepan…” she whispered conspiratorially.
“I think I was matron’s favourite,” she laughed. “I did a bit of everything – looked after the children because in those days parents were not allowed to stay in the hospital. Matron used to give me tickets to the theatre and opera. It was quite a special thing in those days – I had to buy a new dress so they’d let me in. I saw La Boheme,” she said, beaming.
“I loved working there. It was a wonderful environment, felt very equal. In Italy, if a man was a doctor he could be a bit snooty, but there it felt different. I remember one consultant raising his hat to me and I told him he didn’t have to do that – I wasn’t an important person – and he said ‘You’re just like me. I had the chance to study. Maybe you didn’t. But that’s our only difference.’
It was my friend Ida who persuaded me to leave the hospital and I went and worked with her as a waitress in Covent Garden in a busy Italian restaurant. I went from a calm environment to the bustle of Covent Garden. But I was never without flowers or vegetables!”
During this time, she met Giuseppe at a dance in the basement of the Italian Church in Clerkenwell, and in 1958 they were married. It was Giuseppe who was eager to set up his own business, and after a quick search, Delfina and Giuseppe spent their first day in the City Corner Cafe in June 1963.
“I was nervous to start with. An Irish girl who worked there before we took it over, stayed on with us and taught me the rules – lots of rules! – ‘Faster Delfina!’ she’d say. ‘People are in a hurry – you must do things faster!’ The cafe was small, few tables. And one day someone from Dirty Dick’s pub came to us and asked if we’d like to expand into the old alleyway beside us. We bought the alleyway and, of course, the mosaic which was part of the ancient wall. It gave us an extra five tables.
I’ve had a very happy life here, met so many wonderful people. We had customers who would come around the counter and make their own tea and leave the money on the side. People were honest then. We had lots of regulars – I would always get birthday cards and Valentine cards. A tall slim distinguished Englishman bought me an orchid on Valentine’s Day – such a rare flower then. If my husband didn’t like it, he certainly didn’t show it! I often wonder what happens to people. They become part of your life and tell you about their families and then one day they disappear. Maybe they’ve retired, maybe moved away? Maybe died? You never know.”
There was a quiet moment as she reflected on the years and the faces and the memories they held. And then Alexander came over and asked proudly. “Have you told her about hiding the British soldiers on your farm?”
“That was another life ago,” Delfina said.
“I’d like to know,” I said. And so she told me.
“It was 1944, I think. I was thirteen. Blonde and small. I noticed my father making lots of sandwiches and I became suspicious because we didn’t eat lots of sandwiches. He told me that he had two British soldiers hidden under the hay in the barn. He had found them hiding in his vineyard and told them to stay put until dark, because the area was full of Germans. He hadn’t told us children because children talk, and if word got out the Germans would have burned down the farm and killed us all. He forbade me tell anyone. They stayed for a week, I think. I saw one of them once, he had blonde wavy hair. And then they disappeared and that was it. After the war the British MoD sent my father a plaque thanking him for his bravery. They also sent him money to pay for those soldiers keep.
I think they must have survived those soldiers, don’t you?”
And she looked at me with those deep eyes, as if she needed reassurance that her father’s brave efforts had not been in vain.
The extension of the cafe into a former alley.
The mosaic from 1836 upon the wall of what was once an alley leading to Dirty Dick’s next door.
A food order
In Middlesex St for fifty years
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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