Scotti’s Snack Bar, an Italian sandwich shop that is over half a century old, fears that planned “improvements” to London’s historic Clerkenwell Green will have a “devastating impact” on business. Works are set to begin as early as February 2023, Eater London has learned. The planned changes include reducing road space on the Green by 51 percent and removing 43 parking spaces.
Scotti’s is often affectionately described as “museum-like” or a “time capsule.” It dates back to 1967, when Clerkenwell was London’s “Little Italy,” and when the capital’s caffs were full of black cab drivers on a well-earned break. Scotti’s still depends heavily on cab drivers for business. As well as being drawn in by generous breakfasts and legendary chicken escalope sandwiches, they rely on Scotti’s because of the plentiful street parking nearby. If redevelopment works go to plan, the Green will look very different by summer 2023.
With the number of office workers in the City of London still well below pre-pandemic levels, Al Scotti, who runs Scotti’s with his brother, Max, is worried about the café’s future. “Our customers are people who can’t work from home: cabbies, builders, and window cleaners,” he says. “Scotti’s is somewhere they can park up and have something to eat. They don’t have time to park half a mile away and walk to us.”
Islington Council consulted locals on the proposals back in 2017, and Al organised a petition to oppose the plans. A lot has changed since then — the effects of Brexit, a global pandemic, and a cost of living crisis — and Al argues that the plans should be reconsidered. He also believes his business’s concerns were not taken seriously. “They don’t care about old-fashioned caffs and the people we bring to the Green,” Al tells Eater London. “Big money talks, and Scotti’s Snack Bar is small money.”
Scotti says that the caff was “deemed too small to be on the [consultation] committee.” He says that as a result, Islington Council did not make any concessions to mitigate the risk to Scotti’s business. “They could have compromised with a timed zone,” he says, “because we really rely on that early morning business.”
In a response to Scotti’s initial concerns about the proposals, a spokesperson for Islington Council wrote that “reducing through-traffic and increasing public space will create a more welcoming and less polluted Clerkenwell Green.” They also argued that “whilst traffic in the area will reduce, the quality of the environment will improve and will encourage people to visit and stay in the area, enjoying the characterful surroundings,” predicting that “this in turn would create additional trading opportunities.” Islington Council did not immediately respond to Eater’s request for comment on the current situation today, 19 January.
The planned changes to Clerkenwell Green are at an advanced stage, and are set to go ahead unless a Traffic Management Order (TMO) is declined. Interested parties have until 27 January 2023 to object to the TMO. Failing this, works will begin in the coming weeks, and will bring significant changes to the neighbourhood.
Irrespective of the outcome on Clerkenwell Green, London’s days as a car-friendly city are emphatically over, and they have been for some time. On top of the now-20-year-old (but more recently expanded) congestion zone charges, the rollout of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) was accelerated after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and pedestrianisation is transforming the face of areas that had long been dominated by buses and cars.
This might be good news for the 42 percent of London households which don’t have a car. If it leads to an overall reduction in motor vehicle usage, then it will be good news for the environment, too. Some food businesses may benefit from pedestrianisation — it can create an attractive atmosphere for restaurants with kerbside outdoor seating — but there are undoubtedly others like Scotti’s which stand to lose out. How redevelopment plans address the concerns of these businesses, if they do so at all, will affect their chances of survival.
The future of cafés like Scotti’s, which rely on motor traffic, also depends on their ability to adapt to a city in flux. For a variety of reasons, including rent hikes and changing consumer habits, there are historic Italian food businesses under threat across London. As Joy Lo Dico puts it in an Financial Times column on Soho’s I Camisa, they “can’t survive on nostalgia alone.”
There is hope for Scotti’s yet, however. At least in theory, a successful last-minute objection to the TMO is not entirely out of the question. And although cab drivers have historically been Scotti’s “bread and butter,” as Al puts it, they are not the only customers drawn to the café.
Ann Pembroke, the founder and director of the Clerkenwell Green Preservation Society, tells Eater London that Scotti’s “counts many of the residents on the Green as loyal customers, who will continue to support the café in future.” She hopes that expanding the public space on the Green will “encourage people to visit this precious and historical place, which is a conservation area and has been a public open space since the twelfth century.” She predicts that the changes will “attract a lot of tourism, which should bring Scotti’s more business.”
Some of London’s most influential new food writers, including Isaac Rangaswami and Jonathan Nunn, regularly champion the freshly-made sandwiches at Scotti’s. This brings new customers to the café, and reminds lapsed regulars that this vestige of old London is still, for now, clinging on. It remains to be seen whether a renewed interest in London’s caff heritage will be enough to keep cafés like Scotti’s going. Whatever happens, there are difficult days ahead for businesses which rely on car traffic alone.