It’s long gone now, but here’s a photo I took of Cafe Classique in Colindale back in about 2002. Just outside the tube station on Colindale Avenue and next to the shop dedicated solely to Airfix models (a much sadder, more recent loss), it was the only place near the British Library’s newspaper archive to go for something for lunch.

The women’s shoes nailed to the sign might put some people off, but if that didn’t work, someone had also blu-tacked a couple of porn photos up in the gentlemen’s toilets.

The people working behind the counter never seemed very happy to serve, took orders and money begrudgingly and there was always a worrying sense that some of the women who worked there might also be on the game. The academics and writers who’d come out for a break in their research would look terrified the second they crossed the threshold, and they’d always eat quickly, in silence, and get out as soon as possible. There was a constant sense of tension and fear in the room that the employees seemed to actively encourage.

For entirely explicable reasons, Cafe Classique ended up closing down a couple of years later. I took this photo quite early on, but as the months and seasons passed after I’d snapped it, the shoes started to get incredibly tatty – covered in bird shit, torn up, faded in the sun, puckered by the rain. It became the most melancholy looking cafe you’d ever seen in your life.

The shop sign always reminded me of Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet, where Timothy Spall opens up a restaurant serving dishes like liver in lager which has too many themes going on at once. The shoes are an attempt at panache that overreaches, entirely misses and ends up being excruitiating. And Cafe Classique – I mean, they nailed women’s shoes to the front. What were they thinking?

It’s like some kind of serial killer’s grisly trophy display. You might as well have put scalps up there, or necklaces of teeth.

There is still a cafe on the site today, but, disappointingly, it’s entirely nondescript.

UPDATE – February 2012

Sometimes, the places you’ve always half-wondered about have a history just waiting to be revealed. In February, I was emailed by Ebru, who it turned out knew the cafe well.

I have been crying with laughter reading your musings on the cafe that was indeed classique!

This was my dad’s cafe.

When we saw the shoes and porn and undies nailed to the wall, we were like “WTF!”  There is soo much that went on in there, I had forgotten about the black and white classy porn that was hanging in the toilets…

To be fair to my dad, it was an inspirational time for him: he was having an affair with one of his Czech waitresses (she was quite nice), I think he wanted to impress her.I even had a blazing row with him there: I asked for £40 and for the first time he said ‘no’. I started screaming at him and told him to shove his money and spend it on some knickers for his girlfriend… knowing him, he would have nailed a satin twinset to the wall.

He had a cafe in South Oxhey before Colindale. His sexuality was hidden under the counter: he would cut out the Sun’s topless girl everyday and keep it there. I’d have a look through them (interested in what they had to say) and there was a stack! Started recognising them after a while, I was around 10… Brother and myself turned out ok, but it didn’t work out with the Czech girl.
He now lives with his brother in Grahame Park (not so much stillettos… more like Werther’s Originals and freedom passes).

Thank you for writing about it on your blog. It’s nice to know that his overt sexuality was appreciated by others.