Oliver Cross: 1980s Leeds continental cafe culture remembered

The Hellenik Cafe in Leeds city centre.
The Hellenik Cafe in Leeds city centre.
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I REMEMBER a time in the 1980s when Leeds had a grand, wildly delusional, plan to create a continental café culture.

The vision was that Leeds would become a kind of Paris of the North, with smartly-dressed citizens sitting outside boulevard cafes and sipping espresso coffees and fine wines while discussing foreign films.

Obviously the city councillors hadn’t thought things through, particularly the West Yorkshire weather and the unlikelihood of creating a buzzing intellectual atmosphere in a country largely concerned with avoiding eye contact and not speaking too loudly (and if you want to see this demonstrated, visit your local Starbucks).

The whole continental culture idea was doomed, but the odd thing was that it was also unnecessary because Leeds already had buzzing European cafes, it just didn’t recognise them.

They were the long-established (even then) Greek cafes selling tea and frothy coffee in hand-warming mugs (espresso cups being rather inadequate for northern climes), plus big breakfasts, liver and bacon, moussaka sliced into brick-sized cubes and other comforting meals unadulterated by quorn or rocket.

Which of course is not what the city fathers meant by ‘continental’, even though the Greeks and other southern Europeans are hearty eaters and the most striking feature of many European cafes off the tourist trail is that it’s difficult to get served because the staff and customers seem locked in a permanent lively debate, often led by a fat man in the corner.

Last week I went to the Hellenic Grill in Vicar Lane, Leeds, which has been there for ever, because I was hungering for a good bacon-and-tomato sandwich and a proper mug of tea.

The place wasn’t quiet; in front of me a group of ‘senior’ (meaning as old as me) European people, possibly Greeks, were involved in a discussion which must have been very complex because they talked incessantly, and frequently on top of each other, without appearing to reach any conclusion.

Elsewhere around the tables there were a series of Yorkshire debates in full flow, accompanied by greetings and waves from the many customers who recognised each other – this, I realised, was a kind of club as well as a cafe.

And people-managing the whole enterprise were the waitresses – proper waitresses, taking and delivering orders with great efficiency and skill while finding time for banter and smiles and being fully capable, I should think, of giving therapy or counselling if required.

They were probably Leeds to the core but, like their Greek bosses, they followed the continental tradition of treating café work as a vocation and a skill, not a minimum-wage occupation for gap-year students or youths who would otherwise be unemployed and would in any case rather be somewhere else.

The Hellenic Grill was very busy when I visited it at not-quite-lunchtime on a midweek day, so I suppose it’s good for a few years yet; it’s just that whenever I see a business which is lively and valuable but indubitably old-fashioned, I fear that the next time I pass it, it will have turned into a Tesco Express, a Starbucks or the foundations for a block of flats.

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