Food

The Parliament Hill Café is awful. I’m sorry they saved it

The campaign for this caff might be my last dance with the left

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

The Parliament Hill Café is a drab glass box at the bottom of Hampstead Heath, near the farmers’ market and the running track. But it is something else too. It is a paradigm.

The Corporation of London announced that the D’Auria family, who have run the café for 33 years, would not get a new contract; instead, it would go to a firm called Benugo. This has been reported as a fable with universal meaning, which it is; the café is Cinderella, or the frog, or Anna Karenina. Benugo is Karenin, or consumer capitalism, or the ball.

The north London intelligentsia organised a petition and a public meeting. Giles Coren added his voice, and I hope the gourmet inside him is ashamed of the other one. They talked about social value, which here I think is the inalienable right to subsidised spaghetti vongole; Benugo withdrew its bid; the café lives.

I was going to stay out of it. I am a Hampstead socialist; their tears are mine. I have not broken with Labour, not yet, although they make my fists itch. I have sat through Jeremy Corbyn’s impersonation of a supply teacher who has lost control of a classroom, and identity politics. But the misdiagnosis of the Parliament Hill Café as a subject for activism may be the final act. I could swallow the hypocrisy. I could not swallow the schnitzel.


Last week my husband took our son to the café. The meal took an hour to come. As my child wept, my husband reports that ‘a commissariat of activists were fed the choicest sweetmeats by fawning waitresses as if this were Stalin’s Russia’. He then played the scene in Oliver! where starving orphans watch the parish worthies eating capons. I remembered an awful cup of tea I had there with my father. They left the teabag in the cup and stacked the chairs on the tables. This being Hampstead, it was a cup of tea that might be important — might be in a novel, maybe a trilogy. I said I would investigate.

I take five children, for no adults in my circle are prepared — even as they curse Benugo, and profess undying love for the Parliament Hill Café, and weep at the very suggestion that professional caterers should be allowed to run a professional café — to eat there.

We order a lot of pasta; pasta with pesto, pasta with ragù, pasta with courgette. It is close to inedible but the staff, who are friendly, do not mind us flinging it over the floor or at each other; is this the social value? The café is a crèche disguised as a cause? How bored are we?

My chicken schnitzel is burnt. I could assassinate someone with it. It could be the schnitzel that kills a million men.

I do not think that ‘the oppressed’, who exist for the north London intelligentsia as a sort of roving myth, would tolerate it, for the food in Arthur’s Café, Dalston, is far better; in fact the food in almost every café is better. The left fought for this, I think, pulling strings of chicken from my teeth. What for?

Is it an imaginary — and therefore bogus — act of solidarity with those for whom a burnt schnitzel may be a genuine disappointment? A desire to self-immolate with schnitzel, for they feel guilty about their good luck but are unwilling to share it in more meaningful ways than ‘Let’s all eat burnt schnitzel’? (I file this as a possible campaign slogan for the 2020 general election.) Or has north London become a Sicilian village, where only the mayor’s brother-in-law is allowed to own a donkey? What is this but the fragile masochism of the left on holiday to skankiness? Oh, my broken comrades! Raise tattered flag up creaking pole. This is your hollowest victory yet.

Parliament Hill Café, London NW5 1QR, tel: 020 7485 6606.

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Show comments
  • Lucy Darwin

    It’s not ‘saved’ as They will just re-run the tendering process. Current incumbents came almost at bottom of the list, so unimpressive was their tender. Let’s hope City of London show more bottle and support whomever wins the tender this time.

  • kitten

    When I first heard about this I was worried until I realised which cafe they were referring to. This cafe is worse then a down market canteen. The food is awful and overpriced and those campaigning to save it would never eat there, they’d probably go to the Kenwood house restaurant and cafe.

    This cafe is in desperate need of a revamp and some decent food and updated decor would be most welcome.

  • Hermine Funkington-Rumpelstilz

    Only last week I asserted that Hampstead Heath was a sh*th*le. No-one believed me.

  • Leon Wolfeson

    So your personal dislike…

  • Minnie Thorn

    What a bizarre, bonkers piece of writing. All style, no real content. Please do go and eat and drink and throw food somewhere else, there’s hundreds of people in the local community who will continue to love and cherish and enjoy this cafe. And yes that’s people varying in age, race, class and social position. The campaign to save the cafe has nothing to do with lefty guilt ridden activism but everything to do with community cohesion borne out of the deep understanding that this cafe has nurtured the community for over 30 years and been a welcoming space offering well appreciated and loved food at affordable prices. This is a bit of Hampstead that’s not totally full of socialist millionaires as you would know if you understood the area…enjoy your rant but don’t presume it’s connected at all with the deeper vibe of the people, over 16,000 of whom signed the petition calling for the D’Auria family to carry on..

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