Some things never change


One of Newcastle’s most historic independent cafes is marking a milestone. Rosie McGlade meets the Tyneside Coffee Rooms owner who has spent decades making sure nothing’s changed 

On Saturdays and weekday lunchtimes, expect to queue. Genteely, mind you. This is not the rushed popcorn and nacho stand of the big multiplex. This is The Tyneside Coffee Rooms, upstairs on Pilgrim Street, an independent cafe in an independent cinema, as well loved today as it ever was, though it has changed so little. Maybe because it has changed so little.

“Even after 30 years I love it,” says the owner, who is about to celebrate three decades at its helm. Given the tightrope of most cafe lifespans, this is some achievement, and John Oswell is proud. As is his brother Jeff, who is one of his managers, his dad, who is a familiar face here, and his mother, Alice, who at 80 still comes twice a week to wash up.

There are students, mums, businesspeople table to table with an older set, and one or two regulars remember the Coffee Rooms as it first opened its doors in 1937. John’s one photo of the room then was taken after closing. It looks much darker than it is now, with big curtains and spartan tables and chairs, but other than that it’s recognisable. It’s easy to imagine the room full of hat-wearing men and women amid a haze of smoke, teacup clinking and conversation; people who’d just been in the neighbouring cinema room where moving pictures of a Europe spiralling into war were the mainstay. Its name then, was The News Theatre Coffee Room.

IMG_4298John maintains a respectful nod to the past. If, for example, he were to remove poached egg on toast from the menu, there would be an outcry, he says. It’s been on the menu every day in the cafe’s long history. And they’re always perfect. “We don’t add vinegar, we don’t stir the water. We put it down to the pan we use and the fact the eggs are fresh,” says John. Tempura vegetables and spinach and feta goujons, modern by any standard, sit comfortably alongside fish and chips, soup, chicken escalope, and a range of salads. There’s also egg and chips, below which John has written, rather stuffily he admits, ‘by popular demand’. The regular blackboard specials include steak and kidney pie, pastas, and quiches. They’ve always stuck to table service, and some staff have been here for more than 20 years. It’s licensed too with a range of bottled beers and ciders, and a litre of house wine for £15.

John left school at 16 and was lured into catering while working as a waiter during the summer holidays while he was studying engineering, to the horror of both of his parents. When he took over the Coffee Rooms 30 years ago, his mother Alice gave up a good job at Rothbury Library to help him and she’s still coming in to this day.

Following the building’s multi-million pound renovation in 2006, it was music to John’s ears when people came back saying the Coffee Rooms looked no different, despite the fact they’d spent a fortune and re-fitted the entire room. “One woman actually burst into tears,” he recalls. “She’d been quite anxious about it. For some people, these things are important. We understand that, so we did it very subtly and kept the original plasterwork.”

IMG_4309The mood behind the renovations was to give the city a cinema that would make going to the pictures a complete night. The cafe, serving breakfast, lunch, teas and dinner and open until 10pm, has been a vital part of that. You don’t even have to see a film to enjoy it.

There’s some original cinema memorabilia, plus signed photographs and posters by the likes of Charlton Heston and Sir Ian McKellen occasionally dotting the walls, and this place has attracted everyone from Rowan Atkinson (sits at the front with instructions that no-one must see him) to Sue Pollard (sits in the middle, loves to be the centre of attention). It just has that special something. Bottle it, and John could retire tomorrow, not that he wants to.

Now that the cinema’s creating a fourth screen where the third floor bar was, there’s a new bar/cafe opening later this summer on the ground floor. Does that worry John? “Everyone’s been asking me that, but no. I’m sure we’ll notice to start with, but our relationship with the cinema runs deep. I’ve always said, if the day comes and I wake up and I think I don’t really want to come in, I’ll stop,” he finishes. “It doesn’t leave me much time for anything else, but that day’s not come yet.”

The Tyneside Coffee Rooms Tyneside Cinema, Pilgrim Street, Newcastle, NE1 6QG tel 0191 227 5520. Open Monday to Saturday 10am-10pm, Sunday 11am-10pm. Join John to celebrate his 30 years at the Coffee Rooms by enjoying a cup of tea or coffee at 1980s prices (35p!) on June 24, 25 and 26.

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