As a haven for the unloved, the eccentric and the lost, the Empire Cafe was perfectly situated in a little corner of Soho. It also prided itself as a home for those on their way up and a passing place for those on the way down.
It had been known over the years by several different names, some of which you most definitely would have read about, but its charm was in the fact that it had served coffee, and later tea, from the same premises for over three hundred years. There is a signature carved into the wood that suggests Benjamin Franklin had happily visited the place and it is known that Samuel Pepys mentioned the Cafe in his diaries.
If you’ve ever been to London and drifted around that part of town then I know you must have passed it. Perhaps you drank in it and were unaware of where you were. Perhaps you hadn’t seen the Cafe because you were looking up at some other building or maybe you had just been checking your appearance in the reflection of the Cafe’s window; but the place is there, I promise you.
One sunny afternoon, just after I returned home from a bad war in North Africa, I walked through its doors and never really left. I sometimes feel the place had been waiting on me.
It was run by Mister Chestnut and he was never referred to as Andrew Chestnut, or even Andy. He was just Mister Chestnut, plain and simple, and when he and his Father both ran the place, then he was simply known as Junior.
In the mid 1700s, it was rumoured that the Hellfire Club met in secret at the coffee shop and that one night it was lost on the turn of a card. One of Mister Chestnut’s ancestors was asked to hold on to the property until the rightful owner came to claim it. He never did, and there was talk that the owner had been killed in a duel. So through this one act of God, the Chestnuts became part of the Soho establishment.
I was taken on in 1946 as chief dishwasher and toilet cleaner and I loved it, every grimy second of it. Those who used the place were a who’s who of all the movers and shakers of their day. In the late evening, when we closed up shop and over a hot cup of Java, my employer would tell me stories of the past, those he had witnessed and those he had been told about by his Father and his Grandfather; all the wonderfulness that had been passed down through the family.
Regardless of claims by other establishments and by other people, Grandfather Chestnut swore that he had watched Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels spend most of their days in the corner table furthest from the door, writing the Communist Manifesto.
“Always with the one coffee between them” his Grandfather had told him, “one coffee for the whole day”, he added, then he would let out an eruption of a laugh.
Mister Chestnut told me of the “saddest man who ever walked through those doors”.
“Must have been February, yes it was, it was February..”
“What year?” I asked him.
“Let me think. 1895, as sure as eggs is eggs, ‘cause it was just after my fourteenth birthday. In he came, all broken. He sat down over there and I asked him if he wanted something to drink. ’Hemlock, dear boy, hemlock’ . I asked my Father for hemlock and he clipped me around the ear. ’Don’t be so bleeding stupid’ said my Father, ‘You must have misheard him.’ So I walked back towards the table when I spotted that he was sitting with a young man, older than me but younger than him and get this, they were holding hands. The young man read from a card that the older man has passed to him ’For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite – Good God Oscar, my father can’t even spell. The ignorant beast.’
“I only saw the older man once again when he came in a few weeks later. He had aged so much in that short time, and as he sat down all the rest of the people in the cafe got up and left. Apparently he went to prison not long afterwards.”
“But there was a more curious one than that” said Mister Chestnut, “just let me put on another pot of coffee as I think you may need it.”
When the coffee had been brewed and we were both sitting comfortably once more, the storyteller continued.
“He was a little man, spoke with a German accent. Now I know what you are thinking young man, you are saying to yourself that the description would fit many people. And you would be correct to make that assumption, except I remember him for something he said. He shouted at me that I was to bring him a coffee and that is what I did. As I approached the table I could hear him laughing, so I smiled back at him. A happy customer is a returning customer and I was just about to tell him to recommend us to all his friends when I saw what he was so happy about, on a newspaper sitting on his table were the headlines ‘Over fifteen hundred sank to death with giant White Star steamer Titanic’. “Bloody rich Jews” he said, “best place for them”
“To say I was shocked, disgusted even, that a man like this could say such evil things about other human beings. I was about to ask him to leave when a second man came in, his brother Alois, I had seen him in the cafe before. If I remember correctly, he and his brother Adolf had lived in Liverpool for a while to avoid conscription to the Austrian Army.”
“Not Adolf Hitler?”I asked.
“The very same.” Came his reply.
Mister Chestnut kept me on for most of ’46 and ’47 washing and cleaning until one day he took me into his office. I had been there for two years and this was my first visit to the inner sanctum. It smelt of liquorice and tobacco and looked as if it was decorated for a fortune-teller rather than a cafe manager.
“I want to promote you, my boy. Enrique is old and leaving at the end of the month and I will need a waiter. Of course it will mean more money for you and also the Olympics will be here soon. I will need a much younger man to deal with all our visitors and friends.”
So that was that, I had a few more shillings in my pockets and no more cleaning of the toilets. I handed over my brushes to the new boy, donned my waiter’s apron and started whistling.
He was correct, was Mister Chestnut, the year of the Olympics was the busiest I could remember.We worked every day from sunrise to almost sunrise the following day. Naps had to be taken, when and where we could find the time. There was a little store-room out the back where I managed to take forty winks now and again.
I remember one night I had just splashed water on my face to waken me up when this very distinguished gentleman entered with a young blond girl in tow. The two of them asked for the quietest table, which was always the one at the back next to the toilets. Now I tell you this dear friends, I will go to my grave believing that it was the Queen’s husband whom I served that night and the blond woman was not his wife. This is not the place to tell such a story since he is not able to defend himself but I promise you – if it was not Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh then I will eat my hat. I looked over at Mister Chestnut and I know he recognised the man because he put his finger to his lips to warn me to say nothing.
On Christmas Eve 1950 I asked Maria, the most beautiful girl who worked in the restaurant next door, to marry me. She accepted and we got married in the New Year holding the reception at the Empire Cafe. We invited all the regulars. It was a night I shall never forget.
One day in 1951, Mister Chestnut took me into his office for only the second time and told me that it was all mine. “The time has come – you have a family to consider” he said “I will be seventy this year and enough is enough.” There was no son to pass his business on to, “God’s will”, he would say. So he considered me the nearest thing he had to a son and the Cafe was to be my inheritance. He slapped the keys in the palm of my hand, put on his big overcoat and never crossed the threshold again.
My neighbours were actors, jazz musicians and more recently Chinese. After Limehouse had been bombed in the war, the Chinese had begun to move into Gerard Street and the areas surrounding it. This brought with them, the Chinese gangsters – as if there weren’t enough British ones in Soho.
Talking of gangsters, the first time I saw one of the Kray brothers he was sitting having a coffee, minding his own business when the coppers rushed in and dragged him out of my cafe. He had apparently deserted from national service in the army for the fourth time.
What I also remember about the Fifties was the music. Now there are some who will tell you that the birth of British Rock and Roll started in the 2I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street, but I say it was at the Empire Cafe. On Saturday nights we would have Tommy Steele, Wee Willie Harris, Cliff Richard and Hank Marvin. The Cafe was always crowded at weekends, so much so that some of those that couldn’t get in, moved to the 2I’s, which was a bigger venue. Perhaps that is why they claim to be the birthplace but I know the truth, we were first.
As for the gangs, the Krays had always stayed up east and the Richardsons to the south of the river. One night the Kray twins came in and took a table from a couple who were already sitting at it. The boyfriend got up to challenge them and Reggie Kray slapped the boy and threw him and his girlfriend through the door. I was about to say something when Ronnie Kray told me that if I knew what was good for me, I would get them coffees and leave them alone.
I learned that night, if you wanted to stay in business in Soho then you had to see nothing and say even less.
Luckily my wife, Maria, didn’t see any of this as she was now at home looking after our two sons, James and Robert. I have a photo on the Cafe wall of James with Bobby Moore when he and his wife came to the Cafe just before he flew to Mexico for the World Cup.
As the Sixties turned into the Seventies, Robert began to take on more of the responsibility for running the cafe. James had decided to work in computers and had joined an IT company over in Putney. He and his wife moved into a flat in Chelsea and very rarely ventured into the West End.
In 1976 I became a grandfather for the very first time and Maria suggested that I took more of a back seat in the business. We stayed in Dulwich for a while but I still insisted on visiting the Cafe three or four times a week.
In 1980 we moved to Deal by the sea; it was Maria’s idea and was probably helped by Robert who may have felt that I was interfering too much in his business.
There are so many stories about the Empire Cafe that I want to tell you. Ones concerning prime ministers and princesses, rich men and poor women, writers and painters, musicians and kings. All of them true and all of them from the Empire Cafe.
I will, one day, I promise.
I am well into my eighties now and the Cafe is run by Robert’s own daughters and sons. It’s been years since I last laid eyes on the place, but if you happen to be passing then why don’t you pop in for a coffee and ask them for a story?
Tell them I sent you.
bobby stevenson 2017