It’s a lazy Sunday morning near Queen’s Park in London and several locals are breakfasting in a loo. Despite the row of sparkling, white urinals standing like royal guards against an adjacent yellow wall, these folks are blissfully carrying on, savoring their flat whites, berry granola, and smashed avocado toast. Perhaps it’s time to make a Brexit and let them do their business?
Perhaps, not. London is flush with success over the recent renovation of myriad, abandoned public toilets. Now, before you pooh-pooh the concept, consider how clever it is. As the city’s real-estate prices have soared in recent years, prescient entrepreneurs have snapped up the city’s vacant, ceramic-tiled facilities, scrubbed them clean, and turned them into cafes, bars, and gastropubs with rents considerably cheaper than their traditional counterparts. Daring, novel, and architecturally intriguing, these transformations also tap into the British proclivity for “bathroom humor.”
Take the Attendant, located just off Oxford Street in the bustling Fitzrovia neighborhood. Friends, Ryan De Oliveira and Bosh McKeown, opened the café in 2013 after learning the subterranean space was for rent. “The idea was to use something that was truly British and up-cycle it,” says De Oliveira. “What better than an 1890 Victorian men’s loo with original Royal Doulton porcelain urinals?”
Despite the place being an absolute dump prior to renovations, the two used “lots of soap and elbow grease” to bring the floor and wall tiles and men’s potties back to their original splendor.
“We kept as much as possible, turning everything into a feature, such as leaving the original hand dryer on the wall and keeping the original toilet door,” on the café’s actual restroom, says De Oliveira. To wit, upon descending the street-level stairs, you come face to face with rows of rather elegant, pristine urinals, retrofitted half-way up with a long wooden countertop under which sit multiple stools. The café takes pride in its single-origin, house-roasted coffees and selection of loose leaf teas and offers homey, seasonal breakfast, lunch, and brunch dishes, ranging from vanilla and passion fruit French toast to healthy salad and berry granola bowls.
“Ninety-eight percent of the people that come here love the tongue and cheek aspect of the Attendant,” says De Oliveira. “Female customers have the most fun, especially when they are pretending to [relieve themselves] with their hand on the wall.”
Take the Tube northwest to Kentish Town in the buzzing Borough of Camden to find Ladies and Gentlemen, a former water closet serving creative cocktails and nibbles, like hot sausage rolls. Owner, William Borrell, first opened the spot in 2015 to showcase his line of potato-based, aged, vintage Vestal Vodka. Now, the drinking den serves his Highwayman Gin, made in-house using a small copper still, which on Tuesday nights starting at 7 p.m., can be used to make your own bespoke gin (flavored with whatever ingredients you want). You’ll also find plenty of wines and beer, along with other spirits used to create the seasonally-changing cocktails spiked with local fruits, botanicals, and honey.
“We still have the original [cream and mint] ceramic floor tiles and white tiles behind the bar,” says assistant manager Lukas Etus, gesturing to a wooden counter set with half-a-dozen stools. The snug, candlelit space, further lightened from glass ceiling bricks imbedded in the pavement above, has a welcome, neighborhood feel with marble café tables for seating, shelves of used books, and a piano. “We do lots of events with various liquor brands and usually serve a punch out of the original hand-basin,” adds Etus, pointing to the ancient contraption set in a side wall with a self-serve, push-button spigot. And, for those who need a quick pit stop before heading home, just look for the original stall door marked Ladies and Gentlemen.
Over in the southwest district of Clapham, down a set of nondescript stairs, lies WC, short for Wine & Charcuterie. Open in 2014, the underground enclave offers dozens of wines by the glass, cocktails, beer, hard cider and lots of booze-friendly fare, such as toasted sandwiches, cheese platters, and charcuterie boards featuring the sausages and salami you see dangling over the small wooden bar.
“[The original bathroom] was built in the early 1900’s for the northern line going into the city,” says manager Stephanie Robertson. “It was a men’s room only because women didn’t work or commute at that time.” In the mid 1980’s, the bathroom closed down and the abandoned space fell to disrepair. Jayke Mangion and Andy Bell, ultimately leased the space from the local council and transformed the mess into a neighborhood hangout featuring the original black and white mosaic floors, colored wall tiles, and glass ceiling tiles from the sidewalk above. Three cubbies with cushy black seating replaced the old bathroom stalls with the wooden stall doors repurposed as tables. As a nod to the past, WC saved two of the original working men’s urinals (for male patrons only), complete with broken wall tiles, rust stains, and an eye-level collage of naughty pin-ups.
Upstairs and across the street sits Joe Public, an industrial-chic, artisanal pizza restaurant in a former above-ground lavatory that was built in the 1950’s for the Clapham subway line. Another Mangion and Bell enterprise, the eatery has a light airy feel thanks to the abundance of original windows and ivory wall tiles now marked with the beverage menu. Wooden stools line two counters running the length of the space with additional seating outside at wooden picnic tables.
“We opened in April ,” says manager Paul Williamson, and do California-style pizza and breakfast sandwiches and coffee in the morning.” Toppings for the 20-inch pies (also available by the slice) range from your standard pepperoni to a pesto-slathered round topped with wild mushrooms, crispy shallots and Parmesan. Craft beer, cocktails and wine are also available, along with take-out until midnight.
More cool, converted loos include the Bermondsey Arts Club, an intimate, art-deco themed bar, which transformed the original, marble toilet cubicle dividers into the bar’s counter and small tabletops.
The Convenience, formerly a street-level restroom, serves coffee, spirits, and food in a light-filled space set with small tables and a long counter running along a row of men’s urinals. There also is a rooftop terrace. Visiting chefs cook the café’s homey fare, ranging from lamb kebobs to BLT sandwiches.
Finally, near Covent Garden, CellarDoor has morphed from a decrepit underground facility to a swinging burlesque-like salon complete with nightly acts, cocktails, and snuff. It also boasts the “sexiest toilets in London,” a unisex restroom with clear, glass stall doors that only turn opaque when locked.