I remember seeing a sign saying ‘To Let’,” says Peter Tomlinson, talking about the first time he considered turning a disused public lavatory into a café. “Although somebody had scrawled a letter ‘I’ in so it read ‘Toilet’.”
The Attendant retains period features from its previous incarnation while – and this is important when you’re drinking flat whites – obliterating some of the 19th century’s less sanitary mementos. The office of the toilet attendant, who once collected pennies from gentleman customers, has been turned into a tiny kitchen while a bar stretches across the porcelain urinals.
“It opened in 1890 and was primarily used by traders working at the market on Great Titchfield Street,” explains Tomlinson. “We know from a crest on the urinals that they were produced by Doulton in Lambeth and they would have been carried here by horse and cart. The public toilets were closed in the 1960s and untouched until our landlord purchased them for £5,000 [NOK46,000] in 1989. He wanted to start a design studio, but that never happened and when we opened The Attendant it was the first time this space has been accessible to the public for about 50 years.”
A café this unique could survive on novelty value alone, but Tomlinson has sourced top-quality food and drink to ensure customers keep coming back – the coffee is from Caravan in King’s Cross, the milk arrives from a small farm in Somerset and the cakes are made by the acclaimed Bittersweet Bakers. It’s only missing something you might expect to find at a central London café – a working toilet.
The toilet bar
The team behind Cellar Door, a nightclub that describes itself as “’30s Berlin-meets-New York basement dive” claims the space the club now cosily inhabits was once “the most infamous gents in London”. These Theatreland urinals were apparently used by Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton and John Gielgud, though not necessarily at the same time.
The toilet tour
It may be hard to understand why Rachel Erickson swapped the sun and sea of her native California for London’s uniquely damp gloom, but spend three hours in her entertaining, informative company and it all makes sense. These toilets carry history, intrigue – and much more besides.
The toilet club
Bustling basement comedy club Ginglik is located in a converted Edwardian public toilet originally built for crowds at the 1908 London Olympics. It’s so discreet few locals know it exists – look carefully for the entrance by the edge of Shepherd’s