When an old friend who combines a good sense of humour with a penchant for good coffee said we should meet for a chat at The Attendant on Foley Street in Fitzrovia, that relatively unspoilt area of central London whose boundaries for me at least are the Newman Street Tavern to the south and Honey & Co on Warren Street to the north, I was intrigued. I had set my sights on a grilled black pudding sandwich at Fernandez & Wells, but the one disadvantage of my job is that I cannot go back to favourites as often as I would like.
But walking down the steps into The Attendant, which opened in mid February, brought a smile to my face as no other coffee shop has ever done. And the clues to what this small subterranean space once was lie in its name and the words ‘down the stairs’.
The Attendant was originally built as a gentleman’s lavatory. It closed over 50 years ago and then was one of three such premises that were taken over by a well-meaning businessman who wanted them to benefit the local community. That objective was never achieved and the premises were then sold once more with this particular site passing into the hands of Sheffield-born Peter Tomlinson.
He and his team have done an excellent job in breathing new life into the space. Walk down the stairs and the first historical item on view is the old wooden door with the words ‘ATTENDANT’ on it, leading to the space that the cleaner/custodian used to inhabit. This is now a small prep kitchen in which a young chef prepares the hot specials of the day that are listed on a small blackboard.
The adjacent cubicles, where customers used to have to spend a penny to enter, have been removed and this area now accommodates the counter behind which the young and enthusiastic team convert excellent Caravan coffee into even tastier lattes and Flat Whites via a silver La Marzocco espresso machine. Next to this is a good range of sandwiches and cakes (I was most impressed by a slice of banana and caramel cake) while a fridge opposite holds pots of fruit salad, granola and iced coffee.
Around the other two walls the cisterns remain, but are now painted a pristine white, and what the French so accurately call ‘les pissoirs’ form a backdrop at the far end for a small table that seats six while the row of latrines opposite the service counter have had a small wooden counter inserted into each of them so that one can sit down, eat and drink where men once stood. It is a most unusual and enjoyable experience.
Tomlinson smiled, somewhat resignedly I felt, when I asked him how business was. ‘Not bad’, he said, ‘but our obstacle is getting people to venture down the stairs.’ Attendant is, almost by definition, somewhat claustrophobic, but for anyone who likes a slice of London history alongside their cappuccino it is a highly evocative place to head down the stairs to. Even though, because it is classified as predominantly a take-away, there is now no toilet for the public.
The Attendant Downstairs, 27A Foley Street, London W1W 6DY
Open 08.00-18.00 Monday to Friday and 10.00-17.00 on Saturday.