Credit Jeevan Farthing

100 years of Jaconelli’s

By Jeevan Farthing

In conversation with James Evans, owner of Cafe D’Jaconelli, only 5 minutes from Murano Street and 15 minutes from campus. We chat ice cream, Trainspotting, Billy Connolly and World War Two.

Go to 570 Maryhill Road and you’ll enter a time warp. “Since 1924”, a ribbon-laced sign says. It’s in front of a huge plastic ice cream cone, a 99, sitting in the window of Jaconelli’s, which last year turned 99 years old. Inside the art deco cafe are semi-circular leather booths, a jukebox, a fish tank, jars of gummies and bon-bons and bottles of raspberry sauce, framed photographs of trolleybuses and incandescent table-side lamps. I go one Saturday afternoon and the place is full – young couples and old biddies natter away over coffee and cooked breakfasts. I ask the young woman behind the counter for an interview, and she goes and gets her dad, James Evans. We agree to chat next Wednesday.

“Hello pal! How are you doing!” – up he jumps from the window-side booth, as if I’m an old friend, his cup of coffee and plate of grub already consumed. He’s on his break, I’m running late. James starts by telling me how long he’s been here – thirty four years. “Me and my sister bought the place, and before we started she walked and left me to it!”, he says jokingly. He was just 21 years old at the time, taking over ownership from the eponymous Mario Jaconelli, who passed away in 2017. “I was originally a tiler”, James explains, “which is an Italian based thing. My godfather was Italian, my best friend was Italian, and one day we came over here with me mum. She said, ‘that’s a busy wee shop, I think you should take it’. Me and my sister then went in to meet Mario, shook his hand, and the rest is history.”

Day-to-day, James does “absolutely everything” at the cafe. “Cooking, cleaning, serving, all it takes to make the place work, and hopefully succeed. There’s nothing I don’t do when it’s a wee business like this.” He reflects on the advice Mario gave him on that first afternoon in 1992: “He said, ‘just buy the one shop and concentrate running this. You’ll work hard every day, you won’t get days off’” No holidays at all? “A week in summer, a week at christmas. That’s it. I was thinking, ah, he doesnae know what he’s talkin about – but he’d been doing it since 1924, and it turns out, he did know what he was talking about! Aye, my wife keeps sayin,’I’ll be carryin you to the end!’”

James’s infectious humour and cheeky smile exude youth, not age. Charm and charisma ooze out of him in thick Glaswegian tones. He remains buoyant – boisterous, even – after decades of physically and interpersonally demanding work, although recently his family have become more involved with the cafe. “My wife helps and comes in a couple days a week. We donnae work together though, that would be difficult”. What about the kids? “My oldest kid, he’s 23, my middle one is 19, and my youngest is 17. I’ve had a long spell without any help, but it makes a big difference having them.”

The children are neither here nor there about assuming operational responsibility for the cafe, however. “I think they see how difficult it is, it’s seven days a week, and all sorts of problems come up. They’re all getting an education – the older two are at uni, and my youngest will be starting too after summer. So no plans immediately to take over, but you never know.” I ask James how he intends to mark the cafe’s centenary. He pauses: “I think…the fact that the shop is 100 years old is great, but for me it’s more about the customers who’ve been coming here. I’m keen to do something customer-based, not shop based”. 

“We were in the pub on Saturday night, and we started talking to a guy. He said, what do you do, and I said, ‘oh, I work Jaconelli’s’. He said his mum used to work there, and I said ‘no way, when?’ He said – ‘1949, she’s 80-odd year old, do ye want to speak tae her’, and so we phoned his mum and she was telling me all the history, about Mario. There used to be a sitting room up there and she would go up and down the stairs. Unbelievable, unbelievable.”

“I’ll see youse”, an older woman interjects, addressing both James and his daughter, who is working behind the counter again. James loves his customers, they love him. He thrives upon interactions, the old stories they preserve and perpetuate, and the new ones they generate. “It’s the people that make a place”, I add, and James nods – “If it wasn’t for the people we widnae be here”. He gestures over to two women who have just walked in: “Let me tell you something. I know her granny, I know her mum, I know her, and now I know her daughter. That’s how special the place is, for generations to come back”. James is a storyteller at heart, and he begins another: “One day we were working night time, serving away, and a woman came in with her wee kid. She was an older woman, and she started crying. My wife said to her, ‘are ye ok? Is something wrong?’ The woman then said: ‘This is the sixth generation of my children I’ve brought into this cafe. It’s so special’. Unbelievable, you know. It means a lot.”

“There’s a guy who lives in Ireland, and once a year he’ll come over and he just enjoys sitting in. It’s very nostalgic, as is the shop itself. People will come back and enjoy the nostalgia.” The backbone of this cafe are its regulars. I wrongly presumed they’d belong exclusively to older generations, but I keep getting smiles from a young mother, who is with her daughter. School’s out for the day, a plate of chips rolls in. I suggest it’s too cold for ice cream in February, and James has yet another story to tell. “Through the war, in the 1940s, when you couldnae get sugar, couldnae get things, Mario knew people. He knew the farmers, the farmers would give him sugar, would give him milk. So this was the only shop where you could get anything sweet. People used to come here for ice cream during the war. The queue would be right round the block, people would come from everywhere I think. Those people then told that story to their children, and their children told their children.”

Jaconelli’s ice cream still uses the same recipe as 1924. “Widnae change it. Mario made it. It’s such a simple recipe. And the raspberry sauce as well.” It brings people to North Glasgow, to Maryhill, who wouldn’t otherwise. As does Trainspotting. People come specifically to see the place where Spud has a milkshake before his job interview. “Mate, ye widnae believe me. Ye’d think I was lying. They come from China, Japan, Chile, Russia, all over the world. Ye can spot them a mile away. Bit different from your usual customer, they’ve usually got a camera round their neck, and you just say, ‘Trainspotting? Come on then!’”

“Ye see the Trainspotting fans, they go everywhere. They try to find all the locations where Trainspotting was filmed. And then Danny Boyle, he came back. One of his pals came in for lunch. They said, would you be interested in Trainspotting 2? Because this is the only place they filmed that hasnae changed, so we were planning to film it here. But we went away and they never came back – somebody said to us that the whole thing was getting filmed in Edinburgh instead. I think we got the best one, though.” The best film? “Aye.”

The cafe has also become a haven for Glasgow-born celebrities to film their life stories, including Lulu, despite hailing from the East End, not Maryhill. “Ah mate, ah’m no kidding. We were setting up the film, we had Lulu sitting there and I’m up the back. So it was dead quiet, and then Lulu just started, you know that song [Shout] where she goes ‘WEEEEEEELL’, full on blastin. You couldnae believe it, you could feel it off the walls. Then she goes: ‘Hi I’m Lulu, and she came to tell me how she was abandoned as a child and that kinda thing.’” 

Billy Connolly was a regular at Jaconelli’s, but James alleges he was barred for fighting. “We did his story, I phoned Mario and he came in here and they gave each other a big cuddle.” We have to shout at this point, not just over Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street playing on the radio, but over the kettle boiling, the pots and pans clanging, the rough-and-ready milieu of the greasy spoon, a British staple rendered vulnerable by the ever-rising cost of living. Remarkably, a chicken burger at Jaconelli’s is still only £3.50. Macaroni Cheese and Chips? £5.50. I ask James whether these prices are sustainable. “I’m takin a hit, but everybody’s takin a hit. Ye know what I’m sayin. Hopefully that keeps people comin, cos it’s a difficult time for everybody, it really is. This is probably the quietest day I’ve seen. When you’re used to being busy busy busy and ye start getting quiet days – ye just get a coffee and start cleaning, ye gotta do something, ye cannae stand about. That’s it really. Ye gotta be here, ye’ve no choice.”

“Also you see with the cost of living – we think we might be bad now, right, but during the war, Mario was taken away from here, and he was sent to a camp where they dug out coal”. “It puts things into perspective”, I say. “Din’t it, din’t it really”.“Mario used to tell lots of stories about the war – there would be air raids, everyone would run into the cafe and they’d sit on a table and they’d all have one bottle of coke, because people didnae have money back in those days. So ten people all sharing a bottle of coke. Used to drive Mario crazy!”

Today, you can still get a knickerbockerglory at Jaconelli’s, and I ask how much the menu has evolved since the war, the days of hot peas and vinegar being the only hot food available. “In the 50s, Mario went away somewhere for the weekend, and they were selling burgers and rolls and that kind of thing. So Mario brought that back here. He was one of the first places to sell hot rolls and hamburgers in Glasgow. Unbelievable, int’it”

James uses the word unbelievable a lot, but it feels apt. The steadfast success of Jaconelli’s does seem unbelievable when so many beloved Scots-Italian businesses haven’t made it this far. After 25 years, the family-run Gia’s restaurant has just announced its closure. Gone are the days of plentiful ice cream parlours in the West End, when Crolla’s and Nardini’s would battle it out on Byres Road.

Perhaps this one endures because it does so many things at once, while remaining its authentic self. Jaconelli’s is both a local cafe for grannies living around the corner and a destination cafe for young film buffs from Asia. A purveyor of both soft scoops on scorching summer days and warm cuppas to get you through a gloomy Glasgow winter. As I said at the start, what’s most striking about walking into Jaconelli’s is its timelessness. But the things you do there – enjoying yourself, reminiscing and eating good food – are all timeless pursuits. At least for now, Jaconelli’s has got by without properly utilising social media, without deviating heavily from tradition. Its modus operandi is still word-of-mouth – it got James hired in 1992, and it keeps Mario’s stories alive today.

James and I are done after 15 minutes, but he speaks quickly, we’ve packed a lot in. I end with an obvious question, about the future he envisages for himself and his cafe. He’s going to “keep doin and doin it, and enjoyin it. When ye start hatin it, that’s when it gets a bit difficult, doesn’t it”.


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Trevor Hardcastle

Great place to sit & if your into Knickerbocker glory then this is the place to get one