In his introduction to the lunchtime dining chapter of London Night and Day, the author notes that ‘if you are in a watch-pawning mood, there are the great popular chain-restaurants of Lyons, A.B.C. and Express Dairy, where you can probably eat for less than anywhere else in the world.’ These he ignores (and luckily doesn’t attempt to substantiate). He leaves out posh hotels like the Ritz (a favourite, he says, of Diplomats and International Mystery Men) and the Savoy (‘Femmes Fatales and the International Spy Ring’), too. Instead he picks restaurants (and a few tea shops) that would today be described as mid-market.
Torino, 61 Dean Street
1954: ‘Here you can order minestrone or spaghetti or just French bread and a piece of camembert. Both dishes delicious. Next to you a Briton in boiler suit reading the Daily Mirror, a Spaniard in leather jerkin and beret, a Frenchman and eight Italians – round a table for four, talking twenty to the dozen. Pink tile table tops and check table cloths, Luigi de Rossi at the cash till. Don’t bother to take your coat off. Don’t lift the net curtain.’
2017: For a long time 61 Dean Street was a brothel. Perhaps it still is. I happened to work in the office next door for a week in March 2017, and I didn’t see any dubious comings or goings. Didn’t hear any, either. Kept myself to myself. No business of mine, what people get up to… free country… live and let live… world’s oldest profession…
The House Of Hamburger, 1 Leicester Street
1954: ‘You can get a hamburger (served with a salad at 3s 6d) but in spite of its name, this is a fish restaurant. Sit at one of the small tables or on a stool at the L-shaped bar (chromium glass rails overhead hung with imitation loaves and lobsters) to eat your Whitstable oyster, jellied eel or any other kind of fish you fancy.’
2017: The owners must have dropped the ‘Hamburger’ name shortly after London Night And Day was published, because Londoners will know this place as the site of the legendary Manzi’s fish restaurant. That closed in 2007, to be replaced by an overpriced and short-lived Vietnamese restaurant. On the day of my visit the place was between cuisines, with the staff not sure what the owners had in store for it.
Driver’s, 46 Glasshouse Street
1954: ‘Oyster bar, etc. Emphasis on fish food. Suitable for tourists.’
2017: Still suitable for tourists but there the similarity ends.
Maison Bertaux, 28 Greek Street
1954: ‘Salon de Thé au premier, in pink, concealed lighting and gilt mirrors. Seats a very tight 28, with no room for coat hangers.’
2017: Bertie’s House is still very much a feature of contemporary Soho. Interior paintwork is still very much a feature of last-century Soho.
Georges Jacquet, 9 Old Compton Street W1
1954: ‘Father and son, Swiss patissiers. Comfortable room for 15. You can take cakes away. Omelettes at 3s at any time of day.’
2017: Georges and his son are long gone, and probably just as well. Now it’s just another Soho sex shop. OR IS IT? No. It’s a Mexican restaurant cunningly disguised to look like a sex shop. No, I don’t either.
Pâtisserie Bruxelloise, 82 Berwick Street W1
1954: ‘Here you can have tea OR coffee. Emil Vandermissen came over in the first world war and you will find him in the bakery at the back of the shop. You can see all that goes on there by looking in the mirror. The counter comes from Italy.’
2017: Here’s Neil on Google reviews: ‘(Cotton Café is) one of the few places in Soho you can still get a decent fry up that’s not hipster’d up or at a ludicrously posh price.’ But no Italian counter.
New Scala, 69 Charlotte Street W1
1954: ‘Typical real-life restaurant, green and cream decorations, steamed-up windows, Coca Cola and foreign film advertisements, Balkan waiters, sish kebab, spaghetti, mixed grill or just plain fish and chips. Ask for coffee and it is drawn from a silver monster next to the cash till.’
2017: Awaiting new lessees, by the looks of it.
Pini’s, 44 James Street W1
1954: ‘A plate of spaghetti as you remember it from your last trip to Italy. As much as you can eat, à la Bolognese (and al dente too if you can wait 20 minutes) for 2s 4d. Pay Serafino Pini as you go out. Open until 9.30.’
2017: It’s been Sirena since 1981. What happened to Pini? If he’s the fascist featured in this book, I’m not sure anybody cares.
Mirabelle, 56 Curzon Street W1
1954: ‘If it’s hot and you want something right out of doors, remember the courtyard here where you will lunch al fresco under a roof of creepers which might be vine leaves. Large wine list seems to have some vintages earlier than the eternal ’47s and ’45s.’
2017: Looks like they’ve dramatically expanded the courtyard.
96 Piccadilly, W1
1954: ‘Get a table by the window which overlooks the Green Park, but with scarlet buses in between. Décor here is stage-designer’s wedding cake rococo, pink to off-white, nice for those who like that sort of thing’.
2017: Well, I prefer that sort of thing to this sort of thing – a beautiful building in a prime London location left to rot and decay. Where’s the spirit of the 1969 Piccadilly squatters when you need it?
T Wall & Sons, 113 Jermyn Street W1
1954: ‘Meat pies and ice cream manufacturers. Club-like, bowler-hatted atmosphere. Eat at bar, meat pie sales counter at your back, or on high stools up against the trestle table. De rigueur are sausages and pie de jour (their own).’
2017: in 1976 Wall’s moved out and Rowly’s moved in. The Daily Telegraph says they serve ‘what may very well be the finest steak and chips joint in the land’. No one at Rowly’s was available to argue.