The froth will settle on the last cappuccino at the iconic First Out Café Bar on 29 October, after 25 years serving the LGBT community in London’s West End.
The café - London’s first aimed at a gay and lesbian clientele – is closing as a result of a failure in negotiations with its landlord, but upheaval created in the area by the development of the Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road has impacted on the business.
The key to the café’s success has always been the safe, non-judgemental environment it provides, which the staff and clientele had made their own. ‘The default setting is to offer a warm welcome’ says Maria Tejada, who has co-owned First Out for the past 20 years.
First Out was a trailblazer, offering a safe space for gay, bi and trans people – as well as their straight friends – to socialise in safety and comfort during daylight hours. When it opened, Soho’s gay scene was very much an after dark affair, and the café provided an opportunity to meet in an environment that wasn’t centred around alcohol and clubbing.
The café is more of a community than a business. The bulging tribute book at the entrance is a testament to the relationship First Out has built with its clients.
‘We’re really overwhelmed with the support that everybody has given us,’ says Maria. ‘We really, truly thank everybody. We’ve done it together; we couldn’t have done it on our own.’
Maria pays tribute to First Out’s staff. ‘They’ve been incredibly loyal’, she says, ‘and are working right to the end, even though some have only been here a few months.’
One former staff member is even flying over from America to attend the café’s closing night. The employee, who left over six years ago, told Maria ‘her heart had sunk’ when she found out First Out was closing.
Maria says she’s not against progress, and understands why Crossrail is happening, but the development has caused ‘horrendous upheaval in Soho.’
Other small businesses in the area are suffering too, she warns. ‘People do not come to the West End in the numbers they used to. Soho is difficult to navigate, there’s the closure of Tube lines, poor lighting in the area, traffic, noise. And it’s difficult for people to find places because it’s boarded up’.
Other high profile victims of the development include the Astoria on Tottenham Court Road, and Ghetto, just behind, both of which held regular LGBT club nights and both of which were compulsorily purchased and razed to the ground to accommodate the station’s development.