A taste of London, say the adverts on station platforms. A special TfL-themed pop-up dining establishment has opened, in the heart of town, as part of this year's London Design Festival. The blurb hints at a nostalgic vibe, perhaps waitresses in pinnies serving hearty meals in exchange for ration coupons. Check out tfl.gov.uk/canteen and you'll likely be enticed. But try to work out when it's open, how to get in and what they're serving up inside and you'll likely be stumped. Give it ago now if you like. I'll wait.
On opening day I thought I'd try to get some clues from outside. The location is the old High HolbornSorting Office on New Oxford Street, a cavernous shell left empty when the Royal Mail moved out a decade ago. The building's recently morphed into an event venue for temporary extravaganzas - for example London Fashion Week - which made it the perfect choice for a five-day celebration of all that's supposedly great about UK Design. I'd accidentally turned up during the preliminary "Press View", but nobody on the front desk seemed worried I was an off-the-street member of the public with no accreditation. They were happy for me to fill in the registration form (be careful what you tick or they'll start sending you design spam) and step inside. They also gave me a special wristband to wear, black in colour, which I later deduced meant "off-the-street member of the public with no accreditation". Ah well.
Woo! The inside of the old sorting office is cavernous, as you'd expect from somewhere formerly devoted to pigeonholing letters and carting them away. There used to be metal chutes down to the basement, though you won't get down there today, nor to the underground Mail Rail which formerly carried envelopes and parcels beneath London. But we're not here to gawp at industrial heritage, remember, we're here to celebrate design. A lot of this is furniture, especially chairs, whether you have a living room to fill or an entire chain of offices to stock. Curvy chairs, wicker chairs, colourful chairs, plastic chairs, lightweight chairs, metal chairs... and matching tables, and some innovative crockery to top things off. Lampshades are always a good way for designers to show off, and clocks, and luggage, and small electronic gizmos. But mostly furniture. And especially chairs.
Themedia were busy chatting to stallholders and trying things out. There wasn't much photography going on, nor many people wielding an iPad or notebook, but I sensed that people were merrily networking, collecting information and accumulating ambience. With three floors to explore, each massive, a serious player could have been kept busy all day. I grinned and smiled my way around, in an attempt to fit in with the trendy well-groomed folk milling by. I was glad I was wearing one of my better work shirts, not shabby jeans, but even so I was blatantly not "one of them". Surely they'd clocked me as an external interloper. I could imagine everyone muttering at my shoes... did you see those shoes, too sensible, no style, he's not one of us.
With the London Design Festival being a major event and this one of its major hubs, food and drink needs had to be satisfied. A couple of bars kept delegates refreshed, although the champagne may only have been big on day one. An ice cream outlet offered three quid cones, although this was posh colourful gelato so it was slipping down well. And for food, obviously, they'd invited TfL to team up with a well-known restaurant and given them a space at the rear of the second floor.
Welcome to the TfL Canteen, identified by two roundels stuck to the window which say CANTEEN in New Johnston. The set-up looks like a fairly bog-standard pop-up dining establishment, ie a counter laid out with cakes and a few primitive cooking/reheating facilities behind. The menu is, let's be frank, restricted. There are three £4.50 breakfast options (bacon roll, toasted cheese sandwich, etc) and three more substantial plates for £5.50 (pie and mash, goats cheese and tomato tart, etc), plus cakes. There's also a £19.95 afternoon tea option, which sounds extortionate, but it's designer tea and I think you get to listen to a design guru pontificating while you sip, I think, it wasn't clear.
TfL has a world class reputation for design, so it wasn't surprising to see them here showing off their creative heritage. The dining area's seats are covered in moquette, resembling longitudinal tube train benching. A few seats inspired by the New Bus For London are lined up too, plus a Heatherwick chair to win in a competition. I tried to engage the lady with the prize chair in conversation but she wasn't having it, probably because she'd spotted my black wristband, or maybe my shoes. True TfL design aficionados might be interested in a limited edition Thomas Heatherwick Oystercard holder, fashioned from New Bus cork flooring, for a mere £25. But as for the café, it wasn't as special as I'd expected - just a generic eating space, nicely decorated, round the back of an exhibition.
Do by all means head down to Holborn and take a look around before the end of the weekend. But don't come purely for a TfL-themed snack... much better that you're interested in stacks of chairs and mailroom retro. And don't wear your anorak.