Why Londoners are turning public toilets into cafés

Londoners are known for making the most of the small spaces they have, which explains why a number of savvy restaurateurs have turned some Victorian-era public toilets into trendy cafés.

The Attendant café in London was once a Victorian-era public bathroom

London toilet turned cafe


5 years agoVideo
The CBC's Kascha Cassaday visits a London restaurant that once operated as a public "loo" 1:29

Sipping a cup of Earl Grey next to a urinal isn't everyone's cup of tea, but at the Attendant, a trendy café in central London, nobody seems to mind.

Londoners are known for making the most of the small spaces they have and turning them into something innovative, which is precisely what the owners of the Attendant did a few years ago.

With stairs leading below street level, the Attendant now occupies what used to be a public toilet — one of 15 Victorian-era "loos."

While it's now a coffee shop, the space retains many of the original elements, such as the urinals, which are now used as a bar.

How one business turned an old public toilet into a café

''Retaining the originality and authenticity of the site was a huge part of why we took on the project,'' says Bosh McKeown, one of the founders of the Attendant.

When asked how customers respond to the idea of eating a meal at a urinal, McKeown says the reaction "has always been great."

"I don't think anyone has ever freaked out or worried about the cleanliness or food hygiene."

Melissa Barnes, who was recently spotted picking up a mid-morning coffee from the Attendant, said, "it's a cheeky-cool concept for a café. Definitely different, but not offputting in any way."

When it was still a working toilet, guests would pay the attendant a penny to use the facility, giving birth to the saying "spend a penny," and later, the name of the café.

This particular toilet was built between 1851 and 1885, and sat decrepit for over 50 years.

''Stumbling across this old toilet back in 2012 was just the beginning of a great, inspired journey for Ryan and I,'' says McKeown, referring to his partner, Ryan De Oliveira. ''It was really a diamond in the rough to us.''

Turning an old toilet into something new is a way to reuse old space in an effective way, says McKeown. "If the site would have just been scrubbed up and opened to the public as viewing space, I don't think it would have the same appeal it does today."

Old toilets becoming prime real estate

The Attendant isn't the only restaurant doing this. Due to London's notoriously expensive housing and retail space, old toilets are becoming prime real estate.

In the past six years, at least five restaurants and bars have taken old public toilets and transformed them into new establishments — they include WC, a wine and charcuterie restaurant; Cellar Door, a cocktail bar; and Ladies & Gentlemen, a bar serving homemade liqueurs.

The 330-square-foot underground space the Attendant leases was bought by its owners in 1987.

Before it could open as a café, a year of deep cleaning and renovations was necessary. The renovations cost McKeown and De Oliveira just over $200,000 — about the same amount it cost the property owner to buy it.

But that's the price of a unique, albeit very small space. The Attendant doesn't even have room for a kitchen; instead, fresh pastries and sandwiches are delivered each day from a more traditional above-ground restaurant.

With affordable space hard to come by in London, entrepreneurs are jumping at opportunities to meet public appetite for creative new spaces.

That said, not everyone is a fan.

"It's despicable that they are being sold off,'' says Raymond Martin, managing director of the British Toilet Association, a not-for-profit organization that promotes high standards of hygiene in non-residential loos.

A shortage of loos

While the transformation of old Victorian toilets is enabling new and interesting dining options, other public toilets in London are closing.

In the past 10 years, around 50 per cent of these new toilets in Britain have been shut down.

You can still find some around London, but there are fewer of them and many cost about 50 pence to use.

After a 23 per cent cut to the city council budget in 2011, public restrooms were the first to go, because of their high maintenance costs. Now, with the threat of another 30 per cent budget cut, Martin says many of the remaining public toilets will probably have to close.

Closing down toilets doesn't stop people from needing to go, of course, which is why if you walk around London at dusk, you will see a number of "pop-up" urinals. These facilities work on timers, rising up from the ground at night and lowering back down before 6 a.m.

Video: Pop-up urinal in London

Metal pop-up urinals, as well as permanent ones, can be found near busy pedestrian areas and are meant to prevent people from relieving themselves on the sides of buildings.

Martin acknowledges that this approach has some benefit, but points out that the pop-up urinals "are only for males and what is a lady supposed to do — go down a dark alley? I wouldn't want my daughter doing that."

While he bemoans the state of affairs, Martin hopes that at the very least, establishments like the Attendant allow the public to use its toilets for free, especially if there are no public ones nearby.


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