With King of the Beatniks, Jack Kerouac’s original ‘On the Road’ scroll on display at the British Museum, and the movie of the book finally hitting British shores, London Living are sensing something of a Beatnik revival in the offing.
Sure, San Francisco may be better known for its incredible historical Beat hangouts such as the wonderful City Lights bookstore (owned by Ferlinghetti) and famed literary drinking haunts such as Vesuvio and Caffé Triest, but, back in the day, London Beatniks also fluttered around our city, haunting its chic ‘coffee bars’ and seedy Soho drinking dens as they discussed music, poetry and literature.
We’ve dug a little into the past and a little into the present to unearth London’s best Beatnik – or Beatnik-inspired hangouts, where budding poets or artists can head to to dig out that pen and paper, get penning that prose or simply sit down with a copy of their favourite book and while away some hours over coffee.
1: Scooterworks Café, Waterloo
Tucked away next to the graffiti-filled tunnel behind Waterloo station, this scooter shop-cum-café really is a hidden gem. With scooters lined up inside for your perusal, the hot, fragrant steam of the original 1950s Italian coffee machine is a glorious assault on your senses as you enter this eclectic little café, complete with its own kitty cats weaving their way through the rickety wooden chairs and tables. Full of dark corners for reading, writing or playing a game of cards, the tiny bar, sprinkled with fairy lights, pours out tiny glasses of cheap red wine or bottles of Spanish beer. Downstairs, a projector shows art house films on a weekly basis.
2: French House, Soho
This legendary Soho stalwart has long been the watering hole of choice for poets, drunks, artists, media types and bohemians. No music, no phones and no machines is their rule, thus conversations, fuelled by glass upon glass of red wine, tend to thrive, twist and turn. Drink, brainstorm and chatter: do whatever you want but DON’T use your phone. You have been warned…
3: The Troubadour, Earl’s Court
A west London institution since it opened in 1954 as one of London’s first coffee houses, The Troubadour has many claims to fame, not least that this was the first place where Bob Dylan performed in London. Anyone who was anyone played downstairs at this club, from Sammy David Jr. to Jimmi Hendrix, and legendary bands came here for a post-show drink or fifty from Earl’s Court, including Led Zeppelin. Today, it’s still an amazing place to settle down with some comfort food whether in the cosy confines of the knick-knack-filled interior, or in the twinkly, fairy light-strewn back yard.
4: Ace Café, North Circular Road
The place to be for the Ton Up Boys in the ’50s and the rockers in the 60s, the Ace Café was rebuilt in 1949 after being destroyed in World War II and remains open to this day. Following the war, young motorists would meet here to listen to rock ‘n’ roll music, form bands and shoot the breeze over a strong black coffee. Though it closed for a period, it was revived in 1994 with a rocker reunion, which attracted over 12,000 revivalists keen to relive the glory of their heydays. The Ace Café may have changed many times, but its echoes of rockabilly history still ring to this day.
5: The Poetry Café, Covent Garden
Founded in 1909 by the Poetry Society, this cute little café is a hub for latter and modern-day poets, with an impressive programme of events and a membership base of 4000 people. From performances to competitions,this is the place to be if you want to immerse yourself in London poetry life. Head to the café to meet likeminded poets, enjoy some vegetarian grub or to try your luck at London’s premier open mic session for poets at Poetry Unplugged.