Remembering Soho’s pre-Goth hangout for morbidly-inclined Beatniks.
In the 1950s, London in general, and Soho in particular, underwent something of a post-war revolution. In 1953, Italian immigrant Pino Riservato opened the Moka Bar on Frith Street, the first place in the area to be serving proper Italian coffee as opposed to the reconstituted muck that had passed in the UK until that point. Before long, a staggering number of coffee bars – some five hundred at least – sprung up across London, mostly concentrated in Soho and the surrounding areas. With their fancy expressos and foam-laden coffees, Formica counters and trendy decor, these were the hippest places in town. For teenagers too young or too cool to go to the pub – back then still firmly the domain of men of a certain age – the coffee bar was the ultimate hang-out, and different places began to attract different crowds – the rock ‘n’ rollers in the 2i’s, the furious revolutionaries in The Partisan and the beatniks and (self-declared) intellectuals in Le Macabre.
Le Macabre, at 23 Meard Street, was a theme bar before theme bars were a thing, based on the ghoulish and grotesque and taking its influence from Le Grand Guignol in Paris and the Cabaret Del Diavolo in Rome, albeit with less extravagance. As the name suggests, Le Macabre was a horror venue, with coffins for tables and skull ashtrays, with walls painted with naked girls being chased by demons and skeletons, adorned with cobwebs galore. As you might expect, it attracted the Beats – or what passed as Beats in London – who would allegedly have furious discussions about literature that they probably hadn’t read while being as furiously cool as they could manage.
Dates are vague, but this proto-goth venue was open by 1957 – just as Hammer Films were launching the British gothic horror revival, soon to be based at Hammer House, just around the corner – and was still around into the early 1970s, by which time the Beatniks had, of course, long since moved on. The novelty value of the place allowed it to outlive the coffee bar revolution (by the late Sixties, hipper underground clubs were the place to be seen in), and survive in a Soho now more dominated by striptease, but the times they were a-changin’ and by the end of the decade, Le Macabre was long gone. In its place now is a post-production house, one of many film and TV industry facilities in the area. The original coffee bars have now all gone, along with most of the strip clubs and every other vestige of bohemian wickedness that Soho was long celebrated and condemned for, replaced by hipster bars and restaurants. Given that the coffee bar revolution was itself a hipster-driven invasion, perhaps we shouldn’t complain too much. But it only takes a casual stroll through Soho to realise that the place has lost all its character and is now the domain of braying, monied wankers and vanity projects for the idle rich.
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