Cowley Road’s Excelsior Cafe closes after 53 years

Posted on August 1, 2014

I am writing a book on the social and cultural history of the Cowley Road area of east Oxford  – publication due October 2015 with Signal Books. As part of the research I am interviewing all those people who have been so central to Cowley Road becoming such a centre for anyone interested in food and  how it has evolved since the early 20C. The arrival of Asian shops and restaurants, the rise of the wholefood movement (and fairtrade) the role of Mediterranean and Eastern European food outlets as well as east Oxford being a site of production – orchards, allotments, smallholdings,Excelsior cafe community gardens, foraging – as well as consumption.

One of my first visits was to the Excelsior Cafe, a landmark on Cowley Road for as long as anyone can remember. Andreas Koumi is the proprietor and in my interview with him last month I discovered that he had opened it in 1961.

Andreas outside the Exelsior
Andreas outside the Exelsior

Its image is fairly down market – cheap and cheerful all day breakfasts, tea and coffee and a clientele who are often on the margins of society, even by Cowley Road standards. Andreas always has time to talk and my interview with him over coffee ranged from where he got his supplies from – the coffee is all ground by him using only organic beans, something of a surprise to Cowley Road coffee buffs who have always spurned his premises, to famous regulars including Rick Stein when he was a student at Oxford in the 1960’s, and the origin of his ‘specials’ menu.  moussaka on the menuBeing Greek Cypriot in origin, Andreas generally  has moussaka on the menu. What is his secret recipe?  Its the Rick Stein connection. He uses a version of the great man’s recipe.

Last week I popped in for a coffee and Andres took me aside. ‘I’m packing it in’ he said. ‘I’m 80 and its time to stop.’ ‘When?’ I  asked. ‘The end of the month’.  Today I went and bought a card for him. I got to the cafe and there was a hand-written sign  on the door saying that it was closed. Too late, I thought. But no, the door was ajar and I went in. There he was on his own surveying the cafe  for the last time  – and he was leaving it exactly as he had it for all those years. His son Evripides, was standing by the door. Andreas and I  had a few words and I gave him the card. ‘You can’t chat for long’ he told us, ‘His wife is waiting for him in the car’. And with that I watched as he locked the door for the final time and walked down the Cowley Road to the waiting car and retirement.

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