The Experience Journal: Bar Italia, Soho

Here at Faber, we believe the secret to success in the hospitality industry is the creation of a seamless experience—as opposed to a certain type of cuisine or decor. It occurs when a business knows exactly what it’s about, demonstrates it in every detail, and executes it consistently. We call this Immersive Hospitality™. And The Experience Journal puts a spotlight on venues that have achieved this to give readers an insight into what makes them special. This month, Founder and Creative Director Tony Matters tells us why he loves Bar Italia in Soho.

Wow! So where do we begin with Bar Italia? Open daily from 7am until 4 am, this Soho icon couldn’t be further from the plethora of plastic coffee shop chains that have taken over the world. It’s the OG...the Godfather of coffee houses. And it all started back in 1949, opening its doors in what was then the Italian Quarter of town.

Commemorated with a blue plaque, number 22 Frith Street (home to Bar Italia) was actually where John Logie Baird gave the world's first demonstration of television, back in 1926!  And it’s been the inspiration for creatives ever since, including being the subject of a play with co-writer Dave Stewart quoted as saying: "This coffee shop is very small but what goes on in there is as big as the world”.

Opened by the highest-paid entertainers of the time—American comedy duo Abbot and Costello,  Bar Italia has gone on to be an artistic inspiration. Ed Gray painted actors Rupert Everett and John Hurt there in 2011. And later, Carl Randall depicted Movie Producer Jeremy Thomas standing in front of the cafe as part of his 'London Portraits' series. Adam Ant shot an album cover there and it even has a song by ‘90s Indie sensation Pulp dedicated to it! Now that’s what we call an eventful 74 years!

‘Coffee culture’ didn’t really exist in Britain before Bar Italia. It was very difficult to find good coffee back then. And the family-run business uses a unique espresso blend created by (what was its neighbour at the time) revered coffee roaster Angelucci. Its recipe has remained a secret all this time, apparently even the current owners don’t know what it is!

Bar Italia served an important role in the Italian community when it was first opened by Lou and Caterina Polledri. The cafe allowed people to stay in touch with the ‘Old Country’, becoming a place to find out everything from job opportunities to news about loved ones after the war. And you could say that this sense of community has remained, particularly through football (which has almost religious status in Italy!). The venue regularly shows matches and it’s estimated that around 8000 people gathered on the street outside to celebrate Italy's 2006 World Cup win! 

In terms of design, the red and white Formica is an important part of the bar, with original pieces remaining from 1949. And the floor, which was laid by Uncle Torini Polledri has felt millions of pairs of feet walk over it, including some of the world’s most famous. Musical visionary David Bowie, The Godfather’s director Frances Ford Coppola, and King Charles’ niece Zara Tindall, are just a few examples! Even the Gaggia coffee machine has been there for nearly as long as the cafe, which is still owned by the Polledri family to this day. It’s little details like this that make Bar Italia so legendary…

Tony’s experience: “I often get asked what my favourite restaurant or bar is, with the expected answer being the latest or greatest designer venue. So people are often surprised when I tell them my answer: Bar Italia in Soho”.

“Why is this place my favorite? Well, in part it’s because it’s not really ‘designed’ as such; the decor is clearly old, some of it original from when it first opened in 1949. There’s layer upon layer of stuff hanging from the walls and ceiling: old photos, memorabilia, random objects. It hasn’t been curated by an art consultant, it’s simply evolved over the years”.

“They do great pizzaspiping hot, Neapolitan style, and always a struggle to eat them from the shallow Formica counter. Their coffee is greatproper Italian coffee. And the service can be somewhat brusk: no-nonsense, unpretentious, Italian”.

“So why is this place such a landmark on the Soho scene? I hate to use the word, but it’s authentic. That thing that we as designers constantly strive to create: the ‘authentic experience’”. 

“I love the fact that when I’m there I’m not looking at the interior, wondering where they got their bar stools from, or looking at the underside of the plate to see who made it. I’m just one of the many people diving into an experience that stems from the birth of Soho cafe culture”.

“And this for me is the key; as a family-run business, this place is a slice through the Italian story in London. Layers of history, witness to so much change but always managing to stay pretty much the same. It’s the ultimate example of emotion expressed in a place and space”.

Photo credit Bar Italia, Soho

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