The Magic And Grandeur Of London's Grand Cafés

By Sian Meades Last edited 11 months ago
The Magic And Grandeur Of London's Grand Cafés

London's cafe culture now usually involves flat whites to go, or working all afternoon from a cafe that offers free Wi-Fi with your lemon drizzle. But once upon a time the grand café was king. Modelled on the glamorous affairs of Paris and Vienna popular at the turn of the 20th century, these were luxuriant, all-day dining affairs.

Tourist magnets they may be, but there's a lot to like about London's handful of grand cafés. If you're bored of your usual coffee shop, try one of the swankier coffee spots in the city.

Pastries at The Wolsey.

The Wolseley

The Wolseley building was designed by William Curtis Green in the 1920s and has an old school charm unmatched by any other grand café in London.

The food might be a little pricey and unadventurous but if you avoid the top end of the menu, your bill won't be nearly as high as you'd expect. Think pastries for breakfast or soups and sandwiches for lunch and you'll walk away feeling you bagged yourself a bit of a bargain.

The unusual clientele only highlights the appeal. You're as likely to find yourself sat next to regular Joan Collins as you are an American family taking holiday snaps. Rather like Ms Collins, The Wolseley might be a bit dated but it's still pretty fabulous.

The Delaunay

The Delaunay in Covent Garden is a tourist trap. It's also definitely very fancy — all black banquettes and smart waiters gliding about the shiny floors (on our count 10 waiting staff served a room with just 15 diners). But unlike its older sister The Wolsley, it feels staid. A little bland.

We worked our way through a sickly apricot and pistachio millefeuille and (as always) wished we'd gone for the black forest gateaux. Perhaps it was just a little too quiet late afternoon, but unless we were with very sensible grandparents, we'd be unlikely to make a return trip.

But The Delaunay does have a trick up its sleeve...

The Delaunay.

The Counter

Pop around the corner from The Delaunay's main outpost to The Counter. The relaxed café in the middle of the Aldwych crescent is the ideal for rainy days and people watching. It might not be particularly grand but you still get the Viennese café vibe (and the same cakes) without the starchy atmosphere.

Royal Academy Grand Café

What the RA's Grand Café lacks in exciting cuisine (it's run by London museum favourite Peyton & Byrne), it makes up for with beautiful art. The room is adorned with murals by British painter Gilbert Spencer.

Rather oddly, it's only open 11am-4pm most days so all-day dining is confined to a pretty tight window. Don't get caught out like we did (and if you do, have a drink in the hidden garden of The Keeper's House).

The Royal Academy Grand Cafe.

Fischers

There's no doubting Fischer's' Euro credentials: schnitzel, spaetzle and sausage dominate the all-day menu. Located just down the road from tourist Mecca Madame Tussauds — but somehow still ticking that all important 'neighbourhood restaurant' box — Fischer's is every inch an early 20th Century Viennese café. Come here for the classics. And bring your parents.

German Gymnasium

Tucked between King's Cross and St Pancras International, the German Gymnasium was originally just that — built in 1865 for the German Gymnastics Society.

Despite a rocky start when the D&D restaurant opened, German Gymnasium has found its feet on the balance beam. They've managed to take the best bits of a traditional grand café — a gorgeous space, carb-heavy menu, far too many coffee options — and make it modern.

On our brunch visit we sampled an excellent currywurst for £12.50 and would happily do so again for every meal this week. The general consensus is that the café is a far better choice than the restaurant but it was surprisingly quiet when we visited on a Sunday afternoon. Head here instead of joining the huge queues at Dishoom.

The German Gymnasium. Image: kingscross.co.uk

Royal Exchange Grand Café

The powers that be at The Royal Exchange might call it a grand café, but it's really a posh open café that caters to its audience: suits having lunch meetings. The menu doesn't have a grand café feel to it in the slightest — no black forest gateau or Sachertorte, no seafood platter. Nary a sausage in sight.

And yet, they've got a bit of a hidden secret. The atrium café was actually closed for an event, but a decent glass of syrah in the quiet balcony bar has convinced us to make a return trip.

Bellanger

What was once a fairly average outpost of Browns is now Bellanger, a surprisingly decent grand café. You can definitely tell it's part of the Corbin & King chain, but the cavernous building is beautiful. And very shiny.

Bellanger is a really good place to lose a couple of hours on a weekend and in an area that's rammed with #avotoast Instagrammers, it might well be the only place you can get a walk-in table.

We visited to do a bit of work one Sunday afternoon and no one minded our tap-tap-tapping on laptop keys. The cake is good, the tea is plentiful, the loos are fancy. And there's always something about a nice loo that makes even popping out for a cuppa feel like a treat. And that's the reason that grand cafés still excel in London: they turn something everyday into a bit of an outing, even if you only spend a tenner. If you choose carefully, it's likely to be a tenner very well spent.

And in case you were curious about Lowlander Grand Café… it’s actually a Belgian pub, but they will do you a schnitzel.

Last Updated 09 January 2017