In the heart of London’s Soho sits a stoic and unaltered piece of history. Since 1949 Bar Italia has been serving espressos, latte and paninos to wide and eclectic mix of punters. But what makes this coffee shop so special? Its wider context has always had a multitude of identities, from the seedy underbelly of London’s sex trade to the current vibrant heart of London’s film, TV and post-production worlds, but the one of the few constants in this constantly changing part of London has been the coffee shop. Stepping into Bar Italia is like stepping into a time warp where the interior has hardly changed, in a modern world of corporate branding and rebranding in the saturated coffee shop market this could perhaps be used against it, but in fact this adds a charm, vibrancy and unique charisma to the place which is lost in the cosmetic dalliances of chain coffee shops chains.
Caffeinated beverages, Limoncello and succulent Italian deserts aside, the place has become a reference point in its own right, ‘Meet you at Bar Italia’ as opposed to ‘Meet you at the Italian Bar on Frith Street’ signifies an embedded identity that carries a weight of cumulative experiences and reputation which cuts through the fickle fads of a rapidly changing landscape. But it’s important to realise that this reputation isn’t a monolithic entity, Bar Italia represents different things to different people even at the same time and day of the week. During the working week it become a calm refuge to escape from the daily grind, perhaps a meeting place for a long hour over lunch, or a marker to tell you how to get to the post production house down the road, but as evening and night approach an eclectic mix of patrons descend upon the establishment. Romantic liaisons adulterous or not, business deals, head hunting, caffeine stops before or after a West End production all transform Bar Italia into a controlled and infectious energy hub; strangers who in typical British style would desperately avoid any sustained contact apart from ‘excuse me’ mellow, perhaps fuelled by the Peroni or Limencello and start speaking, desert recommendations are shared, people reminisce over the 80’s tracks coming out of the speakers and a sort of cross pollination of sociability and interaction happens that is quite rare to find within the context of a London coffee shop.
Bar Italia the physical space, Bar Italia the coffee and food, and Bar Italia the reputation all represent different things, but its ability to maintain solid and relatively unchanged, whilst also humanising and providing a platform for a multitude of memories combined with smells makes this a unique icon in the fabric of London’s increasingly cramped coffee world.