LONDON: On a balmy September afternoon, one boutique cafe on the fringes of London’s Hyde Park is doing a brisker trade than most. After all, ‘Cafe Diana’ is bestowed with a namesake who was once one of the most famous women in the world.
The iconic princess, who died 20 years ago last month, lived just a stone’s throw from the eatery, so owner Abdul Basit decided to name his cafe after her. “I was stuck for a name and then someone told me she lived just across the road in Kensington Palace,” he says, “then I had the idea — ‘Cafe Diana.”
The Iraq-born entrepreneur, who opened Cafe Diana in 1989, says he was surprised when he saw the princess at the gate opposite his cafe two weeks later. But he was even more surprised when HRH Diana popped in to say ‘hello’, ordered a cappuccino, and casually introduced him to her two boys, the young kings-in-waiting William and Harry. “She was beautiful, so gracious and had such a presence,” says Basit, “I was very fond of her.”
In the coming years, the unlikely pair developed a friendship and the princess would visit ‘Cafe Diana’once a week, says Basit. “She was very happy that I named the cafe after her. She was a good person, very unique and she had a personality full of love and beauty.
“Most importantly, you feel like she is genuine; when she spoke to you, you could see that she was genuine and true.” Notably, Basit wavers between the present and past tense, as if he can’t quite believe she’s gone.
On 31 August 1997, the world mourned the untimely death of the fondly-named “People’s Princess” and millions of visitors flocked to Kensington Gardens to offer their condolences. Twenty years on, there has been similar, if less frenzied, visits from all over the the world as loyal Diana fans visit the princess’s former home to pay their respects two decades on.
Patrons that visit Cafe Diana today are surrounded by nostalgic pictures of the princess with Harry and William as children as they tuck into their Diana salads or Diana burgers. However, it was not until she passed away that the walls started to fill up with Diana memorabilia and cafe began to fill up with yet more customers.
Basit says, “We always had visitors who came to the cafe because of Diana, even when she was alive but we kept it quiet because she didn’t like the publicity.
“I counted her as a friend and a neighbor as well as customer. But since she passed away, I now see it as my duty to help continue her legacy.
“Since she died, I have put up more photos and memorabilia. People send me photos of her and also I have all the letters she sent me.”
Basit says that he has since sent Diana’s son Prince William a congratulatory note on his marriage to Kate. “And I received a reply,” he says with smile.
The cafe owner says he has experienced a lot of interest from the press, particularly in the last week. “But I’m not interested in that,” he says. “I’m interested in remembering Princess Diana. People always smile when they realize that she lived across the road and they light up when I tell the story.
“This anniversary brings back a lot of sad memories but people have remembered her in a nice way and appreciated her hard work and all the charity work she was doing. It’s a been a good period of respect for her.”
Basit says he plans to expand the Cafe Diana concept and possibly “create a chain” in the UK and globally.
“I have plans for more cafes. I want to do two things: I want to keep her legacy and at the same time build a business. If I do decide to open more cafes, ‘Cafe Diana’ could be the best name I ever choose,” he says.