Cafe Tabac: the beating heart of Bold Street for nearly 50 years
At a time when a new bar or restaurant seems to pop up every few minutes, it’s always comforting to find somewhere firmly grounded in the city.
Whether it’s catering to the day or night crowd, Tabac has been serving hungry and thirsty customers since it opened in 1974. Described as a cafe, restaurant and bar, it’s fair to say that this Bold Street institution has been a lot things to many people in his time.
The independent cafe was originally owned by Rita Lawrence and it is still a family business. Rita’s niece and current owner, Elaine Clarke, started in the business aged just 16 in 1984.
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Liverpool Echo editor Maria Breslin has fond memories of working at Café Tabac for several years in the 1990s. She remembers the cafe’s original owner Rita Lawrence as ‘the absolute matriarch’ .
Maria said: “Rita was a total inspiration. She spoke candidly and without frills with an absolute heart of gold. She was also fearless. Anyone who dared disrespect any of her employees was immediately walked out with a warning not to never come back.
“Somehow Rita managed to spend all morning frying sausages and roasting meats and still looking like a million bucks when she left for a afternoon on the town. His hats were legendary.”
Maria added: “I met so many long-time friends working at Tabac. We were like one big family.
“And it was the perfect place to have breakfast or a Sunday roast. It felt like an after-party at times with clubbers and DJs from Cream and the other clubs. Happy days.”
Inspired by the style of Europe’s great bohemian cafés, Café Tabac has been described as a hub for the city’s creative residents, attracting artists, actors, singers and performers among its varied and colorful clientele.
Oliver Clarke, managing director of Tabac, spoke to ECHO about the venue’s place in the city. Oliver said: “At the height of the alternative music scene in Liverpool in the 1980s, and the way it all came together with post punk, new wave and new romantics, it was a great melting pot to Liverpool and Tobacco were right in the center of it all.
“Almost by accident really, it became the place to go because it was a hub for 80s fashionistas and hipsters.”
One of the strengths of the venue, in addition to occupying a prime spot on Bold Street, was Tabac’s ability to adapt to crowds. During the day, it really is a brunch and social spot where you can meet up and hang out with friends. At night, the Tabac turns into a cocktail bar that still retains its bohemian and cozy atmosphere.
Oliver added: “We have people who come every day and they sit in the same place and order the same thing. We have a boy who comes every day and orders half a San Miguel and he does for 20 years.”
Colin Smith, the company’s chief marketing officer, said Tabac is a place he doesn’t have to struggle to market, he “just lets it breathe”. Describing the unique characteristics of the place, he said: “I think everyone is welcome. At Tabac, no matter your background, your background or your appearance – it’s a safe space.”
In December 2020, the iconic cafe-bar reopened after a major facelift during the second lockdown. Memorabilia of the venue, from the 70s, 80s and 90s – including photographs and memorabilia now adorn a number of the walls, but the familiar bar remains mostly intact, even sparing some of its 70s wallpaper .
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A backdrop collage has been created from a huge collection of old Liverpool posters, leaflets and images featuring some of Liverpool’s most beloved legends from that era including Pete Burns, Ian McCulloch, Pete Wylie , Margi Clarke, Jayne Casey and Chloe Poems (alter ego of punk poet Gerry Potter). The collage adorns the walls alongside a collection of framed images taken by Liverpool photographers Mark McNulty and Francesco Mellina, adding a sense of recorded history to the role the cafe bar has played in the lives of artists and city musicians.
The marketing director added: “I think Tabac has definitely found its place in the new Bold Street look, but I think it will always be unique. There’s an authenticity to it. There’s nothing difficult about Tobacco.”