Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Ghosts of Soho Restaurants.

Soho Restaurants.

Restaurants. Do we regret the loss of Tomato when it turned into Barrafino? No.  L’Epicure when it turned into Waikkiki? Yes. Waikkiki when it turned into Bar Shu? An emphatic no!  In Soho we see them come and we see them go. Very few are mourned to tell the truth. It’s a hard place both physically and financially to run a restaurant.

We lived in Old Compton Street for ten years and could never quite get away from the smell of cooking.  We opened the window onto the street, and it was Opuz and Amalfi.  We opened the bedroom window one story up and it was Margot Henderson making trotters at the French House.  All of our household objects were covered in a very thin film of cooking oil.

A slice of Soho_Sunday Times Magazine 1968.
Below us then was Duke’s Bar, which changed hands several times before becoming Opuz Kitchen (now Pepe’s).  I was then a film critic on The Independent.  One evening I happened to see a Michael Winterbottom film called Wonderland (1999), and thought the location looked familiar. A large part of the film had been made twenty feet below us, without our ever noticing.  Such is Soho.

By 2008 I had become a restaurant critic for the Zagat Guides, the US equivalent of the Michelin Guides, now owned by Google.  Since then Soho has been reviving its foodie credentials, but there’s been a corresponding haemorrhage of good, cheap places to eat.   The area may have gained two or three Michelin stars and won restaurant of the year two years running in the Tatler, but where to the waifs and strays eat these days? Especially now that Stockpot is destined for the stockpot?

Soho dining originally was quite grand. Casanova’s mistress Teresa Cornelys first brought Venetian small plates to 18th century Soho (revived again by Polpo in St James bailiwick centuries later).  At the super exclusive and fashionable Carlisle House in Soho Square the food wasn’t just Venetian.  She had Brunswick pastry-cook Louis Weltje working in the kitchens; he later went to feed up the Prince Regent.  But cheap restaurants? The impoverished poets Rimbaud and Verlaine were able to dine cheaply on food that smelt of home in Old Compton St in the 1870’s.

This golden period of cheap dining was to last about 50 years. Here’s Thomas Burke in 1917 talking about Soho, bewailing to loss of bargain eateries. ‘Gone are the shilling tables-d’hote and their ravishing dishes…not in 1917 do you see Old Compton St as a line of warm and fragrant café-windows…gone are those exotic food which brought such zest to a jaded palate’.

Passport to Soho.

I rather miss L’Epicure with its fantastic gas-filled flaming torches, and its doddery waiters seemingly auditioning for a Victoria Wood sketch.  But there again Bar Shu with its Sichuan Fuschia Dunlop menu, in the same site, is one of my favourite restaurants. I remember that old-school 1950’s Italian family restaurant in Green Court, but it’s now replaced by Yalla Yalla, which is better.

A succession of awful restaurants on the site of Arbutus have been replaced by Arbutus (whose future is now sadly in doubt). One of the best new restaurants in London – Sri Lankan slice of happiness known as Hoppers – is on the site of the little-missed Alastair Little eaterie at 49 Frith St.  Bao offers brilliant cheap food but you have to queue for 40 minutes to get it.

One of the Italian restaurants I remember with particular fondness was Presto on Old Compton St, which was beloved by Derek Jarman, who lived nearby, and Sebastian Horsley.  You only ordered the ravioli, because that’s what Derek did.

Recently Young Cheung’s on Shaftesbury Avenue has closed, a particular sadness to me, not because it was the best restaurant in the world but because it was good and cheap and had the air of old Soho to it.  But it did help that I have a Chinese partner who could read all the special menus only in Chinese.

Also vanished, ECapital was a superb Shanghainese mid-priced restaurant at 8 Gerrard St, where the overpraised Haozhan is now.  Its chef David Tam is now at China Tang at the Dorchester – that’s how good it was.  Delicacies included pressed pig's ears, filleted duck's feet with celery, Lion's Head meatballs, Beggar's Chicken.  The actor Johnny Rhys Meyers was a regular after I took him there.
And we also loved China Experience on 118-120 Shaftesbury Avenue, and I remember the Swindon-based owner telling me he was spending £5,000 week in rent.  They had paper-lantern shadow beef and golden fried prawns.  The subsequent restaurant used the Zagat listed stickers for years afterwards, quite illegally.  Royal Dragon is still in Gerard St, but was ruined like Kettners by a revamp, and we followed our friend who manages it next door to Golden Dragon (her name is Jackie and we’ve known her 25 years).

Soho is full of ghosts, most especially, the ghosts of restaurants.

©Roger Clarke 2016 Twitter
Roger Clarke@Skionar

The Soho Food Feast, Sat/Sun 2-3 July 2016

Supporting Soho Parish a small primary school situated in the heart of London on Great Windmill St.

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