All change for Liverpool’s longest running café bar

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Café Tabac dessert

There are only a handful of city centre venues in Liverpool that successfully make the transition from breakfast café to evening bar.  One of the few that do, has undertaken a facelift during Lockdown part II which will see one of Liverpool’s most historic hang outs transformed!

Café Tabac has been a Liverpool institution for more than four decades.  Established in 1974, in the style of the great bohemian cafés of Europe, “the café at the top of the hill” has always been a hub for the creative residents of Liverpool, attracting artistes, singers and performers amongst its varied and colourful clientele.  

Café Tabac interior

For many years, Café Tabac was owned by Rita, who was never shy to tell customers what she thought of them or those who made their cuppa last three hours. The Café has never shut it’s doors and is now the longest running café bar in Liverpool, still independently owned by Rita’s family, and retaining the charm and authenticity that only comes with serving the city for forty plus years.

It is a real team effort behind the scenes. In 1984 Elaine Clarke was just 16 when she began working for her Aunty Rita at the quirky Bold Street café. As the saying goes, from small acorns grow mighty oaks; Elaine is now recognised as a powerhouse of the hospitality industry in the North West. Operations Manager Kirsty Clarke oversees all sites and has supervised the transition.

Café Tabac interior 1

“It’s rather difficult,” says Kirsty, “when you want to change something and have a revamp yet want to keep so much of what makes the place what it is – there’s a fine line that we cannot cross. The times that we are living in, unfortunately, gave us a period where we needed to be closed and so we felt like the perfect opportunity to change things about a little. When life gives you lemons…”

And that’s exactly what they have done at Café Tabac. Soo Wilkinson of Igloo Design is behind the new look Café Tabac.

“Elaine approached me a few years ago to help inject some design cohesion back into Tabac. We discussed Tabac’s history and the idea of doing a memory wall took shape, in homage to a period of Liverpool’s musical heritage that often gets totally overshadowed by The Beatles. Tabac played a genuine role in the lives of the young movers and shakers of the Liverpool vibrant ’80s music and art scene. Bands like The Teardrop Explodes, The Mighty Wah, Echo & The Bunnymen, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Icicle Works and Big In Japan were all regulars at Tabac.”

Soo’s collaborator was graphic designer Andy Garside, a fellow art student in the ’80s in North Wales. “We used to travel to Liverpool to go to gigs and we’d go record shopping at Probe, where we’d be sneered at by Pete Burns, which was both intimidating and thrilling in equal measure! Needless to say we jumped at the chance to create an homage to the bands and artists that we were huge fans of at that time (and still are to this date if the truth be told.”

Café Tabac interior 2

A huge collection of old posters, flyers and images of Liverpool were brought together and a backdrop collage was created. Some of Liverpool’s best loved legends from that time were highlighted; Pete Burns, Ian McCulloch, Pete Wylie, Margi Clarke, Jayne Casey and Chloe Poems (alter ego of punk poet Gerry Potter). They feature alongside a collection of framed images taken by Liverpool photographers Mark McNulty and Francesco Mellina.  

Referring to the design of the new look Tabac, Soo adds “We haven’t made too many changes to the bar area of, the ’70s wallpaper is still there, but we’ve added classic ’70s Verner Panton flowerpot lights and gave the place a lick of paint to add warmth and a pop of colour. On entry you are transported back to ’70s Tabac and then taken on a journey through to the 80’s. It’s been a privilege to play a part in Tabac’s legacy and an absolute joy to be able to highlight and remind people about one of the most significant eras in Liverpool’s cultural history. Long live Café Tabac!” 

There have been some very dark days for the hospitality industry recently as a whole, but particularly for the North as The Liverpool City Region was the first in the UK to be placed under the tougher Tier 3 restrictions on October 14, which meant a ban on households mixing in most locations, and venues not serving food must close. Now fast forward six weeks and the doors are Liverpool’s famous venue are open once more – with a new look. With updated guidelines, new health and safety rules and additional covid secure conditions, the team at Café Tabac were chomping at the bit to get back.

As part of the works, some of the interior is now a fantastic back catalogue of who’s who in Liverpool. Memories of the venue, during the seventies, eighties and nineties – including photographs and memorabilia now adorn a number of the walls. Some of the city’s best known sons and daughters have been regulars since the doors opened and still frequent the funky hangout. Former Frankie Goes to Hollywood frontman Holly Johnson said, “If I ever had any money for food back then, it was always spent on a sausage and apple sauce sandwich at Tabac, whether it was with the kids from the Everyman Youth Theatre or Anne Yvonne Gilbert who illustrated the cover for Relax!”

Café Tabac English Breakfast

Actress Margi Clarke, who starred in the cult smash film ‘Letter to Brezhnev’ recalls the days of pre-mobile phones and hanging out at the Bold Street venue: “Tabac has always enjoyed a great position at the top of the Bold Street hill and it was a microcosm for Liverpool’s creatives. It was also my ‘office’ as it was the only café with a public phone. In the days of no mobiles, Tabac was essential for getting a job, as my agent would telephone the café, as they knew I’d be there! The lovely Rita used to field calls from international agents, and I remember she once told me I had a job in Monte Carlo!”

Performance Poet Gerry Potter adds: “I can’t recall the first time I actually went in, but completely remember the feeling of becoming part of it. We spent hours around one flapjack and a far too refilled pot of earl grey tea. We were morphing into the adults we were because of Tabac. The place was instrumental in making my teenage/young adult life truly memorable and joyous and for that I can’t thank Tabac enough.”

Café Tabac lunchtime menu

Along with the interior refurbishments there has been some changes to the Tabac menu, whilst retaining all that has made Café Tabac so popular, they’ve introducing some new seventies and eighties inspired dishes that have been beautifully executed by their Head Chef Bozena Stalij.

So maintaining many of the dishes which helped give Café Tabac the label of ‘Best for Breakfast’ in Liverpool but also introducing a few cult classics. And like all seventies get togethers, no sit down meal is complete without a tasty pud, so hold on to your hats for Tabac’s all new dessert menu which features a Knickerbocker Glory, Black Forest Gateaux, Sherry Trifle and a lip smacking cheese board!

Café Tabac food image

Our new bespoke coffee blend is ‘Tabac espresso’ – as expected, it is a modern take on a classic. A blend of two distinctive coffees, which combine to produce an espresso with a deep, rich chocolatey body, pronounced toffee sweetness, a complex fruity edge, and a hint of bittersweet cocoa at the finish. It’s well balanced and combines beautifully with milk, where it adds punchy caramel, smooth milk chocolate notes and gets even sweeter. Produced in Liverpool by Neighbourhood Coffee, the cities first speciality roasters.

Café Tabac is open 7 days a week from 9am–11pm (under current government guidelines. When guidelines are not in place, they usually close at 1am).

You may also enjoy: Introducing the delicious chocolate bon bons being created at Ropes & Twines, Bold Street

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