Kibbe in Notting Hill
Princess Diana died in a Paris car accident almost 20 years ago, but any visitor to London can see that she’s not forgotten. There are Diana postcards, paper masks, mugs, tea towels—and of course, the public life of her grown sons, Prince Harry and Prince William (now the Duke of Cambridge) and William’s wife, Kate Middleton, a tabloid mainstay who endures daily comparisons to William’s late mother, favorable and unfavorable.
National obsession aside, Diana is also popular with tourists. For Diana pilgrims, there is the official memorial park and playground—and its large wooden pirate ship—in Kensington Gardens. But Café Diana, nearby on Bayswater Road, offers a more personal echo of her life. Iraqi Abdul Basit opened the cafe in 1989. The story goes that he had not come up with a name for it yet when he spotted Princess Diana walking out of the park’s gate opposite and thought, “Why not? Café Diana.” Only a few days later, she stopped in to congratulate him on his business, and soon became a regular, and a friend. Kensington Palace, where she lived, was only few minutes’ walk away, and she would come in with her sons and have coffee and croissants, or would wave to the café owners as she walked past.
Café Diana is what Brits call a “caff”: an unpretentious spot, somewhere between a café and a greasy spoon. It serves a Full English Breakfast and baked beans on toast, but also hummus, halloumi, sheesh kebabs. I stop in one afternoon for breakfast after an assignment involving a 5 a.m. visit to a fish market.
Over my plate of kibbe and salad, the manager, Fouad Fattah, tells me that about half their clientele are regulars, and half tourists who come for the Diana experience (many German, French, and American). While I eat, some policemen stop in and order coffees to go. A German family takes selfies, then say they want to return for breakfast the next day and ask Fattah whether they need to make a reservation. (They don’t.)
The café’s first photo, a black-and-white shot signed in gold marker, was an early gift from Diana. It was only after she died, on August 31, 1997, that the café become a shrine of sorts. The walls are now covered in blown-up portraits from her press shoots, newspaper clippings, photos of her smiling sons on skis, and some more personal touches. One is a letter from Diana to the owners, on Kensington Palace letterhead, thanking them for flowers they had sent for her birthday. The letter is dated July 1, 1997—just eight weeks before her death.
“The people who come in ask a lot of questions. What did she eat? Where did she sit? What was she like? What did she talk about?” Fattah tells me. They often bring gifts. He also says that many families who come in tell their kids the story of Diana, and what happened to her. Some explain she was killed in an accident, some say there was foul play.
Fattah himself isn’t sure. “It she was killed, it’s hard to know for sure. I think we might only know in 10, 20 years what really happened.”