Caffe Astoria opened it’s doors for business on 23rd January 1996. Set up by Janice Kirkwood and Sue Dempsey with business partners Jeff Kennedy and Michael Hirschfeld.
Janice and Sue met in London back in the 80’s, both on their big O.E. This was in the days of squatting and being poor the idea of a free place to live was appealing. Most New Zealanders they knew were squatting at the time, so of course when the opportunity of a place came up they were in. Squats were generally handed on to you by someone you knew, you got given the keys and it became legally yours. Bizarre indeed. Most of the places squatted were unused council houses and flats. They figured better fix them up and make them a home rather than vandals move in and smash them up.
One of the squats they moved into was in the infamous Bonnington Square in Vauxhall. This was an enormous three storied house with 6 bedrooms. Across the street was an old cafe that had closed down and since been squatted. It was known as the Bonnington Square Squatter’s Cafe. A run-down space with mismatched furniture, it did however have a large commercial gas stove. The cafe was run on a roster with different people cooking each night. If you were lucky enough to get a spot, you catered for the evening, prepping, serving and cleaning up. A small sum was paid to the cafe to cover power and gas and the remaining money was yours. You were not talking big money however as the standard rate for a meal was 1 pound. They were lucky enough to secure a spot doing weekend brunch.
The menu would be brainstormed early in the week and all shopping lists and prep lists put together. Then on Friday, Sue would go to the Hammersmith market during lunch break to get fruit and vege which would then be hauled home across London on her bike. After work they’d nip down to the local Sainsbury for last minute ingredients. Friday night was when all the prep for the following day was done, in the kitchen of their flat. Thinking back they can’t believe their flatmates were so tolerant. Early Saturday morning everything would be carted over the road to the cafe and they would set up shop. The brunches were a huge success. It was the first time anyone had done day time shifts at the cafe and as it was a lovely sunny spot they had no trouble getting the punters in. They also offered coffee which people loved. That was however thier biggest crime – made the night before in a stovetop pot and put into a huge preserving pan which was reheated the following day. Gosh, fancy getting away with that!
They also catered a couple of “orphans” Christmas dinners, one of which was at the Bonnington Square cafe. These were great get-togethers of all their NZ friends who were without family at Christmas. The menu was always a feast including a huge turkey and a “nut” roast for the vegetarians, very 1980’s.
25 years on and Bonnington Cafe is still open and run cooperatively, with a roster of people cooking. Follow the link to their website http://www.bonningtoncafe.co.uk
Left; Bonnington Cafe Right; Bonnington Square squat