With a day off and Mrs MidCentury’s birthday to celebrate, we decided to treat ourselves to a treasure trail of vintage venues in Soho – with a few stops for classic eating and drinking along the way. It’s one of those areas we’ve both known on and off for years – passed through, gone to venues, shopped there, but this was an opportunity to track down some of the more famous addresses in 20th Century culture and see what clues were left as to their past. As well as one of the standard walking guides, we drew heavily on an encyclopaedic history of post-war London sub-culture – London Calling by Barry Miles. Starting from the period immediately following WW2, he takes the story right through to the early 80s scene which formed the backdrop to our early working years. He’s very hot on detail, so the full addresses of the various venues are given,

Bar Italia – Frith Street

making an excellent starting point for a pilgrimage like ours.

Inside Bar Italia

After the journey into Town, a coffee was in order, and where better to start than Bar Italia in Frith Street, opened in 1949 and still with the atmosphere of an independent Soho coffee bar. A blue plaque outside reveals the building’s other claim to fame – as the site of John Logie Baird’s first live television broadcast in October 1925 when he was living and working in rented rooms above. Revitalised, a stroll north took us into Soho Square, with some striking art deco and nouveau buildings hinting at the area’s close connections with the UK film industry. My dodgy French Hugenot ancestry prompted a stop outside the late 19th Century French Protestant Church, and the Square also boasts the fascinating House of St Barnabas, one of the finest examples of a Georgian house in central London. Anyway, back (or forward) to the 20th Century, and turning down Greek Street quickly brought us to the Gay Hussar Hungarian restaurant at No 2. Opened in 1953, and the haunt of a clientele as diverse as left wing politicians, Soviet agents, General Eisenhower and the Queen of Siam, it’s a true slice of the mid Century Soho scene. Further down at No 18 is the building that once housed the Establishment Club, founded in the early 60s by Peter Cook, the place where comedian Frankie Howerd staged his 1960s comeback and where, upstairs in 1963, the iconic photograph of Christine Keeler, naked astride an Arne Jacobson chair, was taken. No 18 has a commemorative plaque, but just across the road at No 49 (very close to another quintessential Socho restaurant, L’Escargot), nothing hints that it was once the home of one of Soho’s many music venues, the Skiffle Cellar, later Les Cousins skiffle and folk club. Along the same stretch is the back entrance to the Montagu Pyke, now a Wetherspoons, but once a cinema and one of the last homes of the famous Marquee Club (check out the full history at this excellent Marquee Club history site.

The entrance to the Skiffle Cellar in 1958

The entrance to the Skiffle Cellar in 1958

 

Le Macabre – 23 Meard Street

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Long gone – a favourite haunt back in the early 80s

 

Cutting across to Dean Street via Meard Street took us past the site of the Madrake Club at No 4, one of London’s post-War Bohemian drinking dens, and of Le Macabre coffee bar at No 23. Famously captured in one of the late 1950s Look at Life colour documentary shorts, Le Macabre’s decor took a firmly ghoulish theme, with coffins, skulls, black cats and spiders in abundance. Into Dean Street, and near the top at No 26-29 is another long-established Soho restaurant, Quo Vadis, which opened its doors in 1926 in a building that for six years was home to Karl Marx. Like most Soho restaurants, it’s less exclusive than you first imagine – I was lucky enough to join the company at one of the lunches there hosted by legendary Soho maitre d’, Elena Salvoni (and that’s another story), and was impressed by the quality and value. Dean Street was also the home of more Bohemian post-war drinking clubs – the Gargoyle at No 69 opened as a private club in the mid 1920s, with interiors by Henri Matisse and acres of mirrored glass; after it closed in 1978, parts of it became variously the Comedy Store, the Nell Gwyn Strip Club and, one of our haunts, Gossip’s night club where Gaz Mayall started Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues club, still running in a different venue after 35 years and about to celebrate its anniversary in fine style (Link). Slightly further down is No 41, the home of the Colony Club, a notorious drinking den opened in 1948, presided over by the tempestuous Muriel Belcher, and with a clientele that included over the course of its life Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, George Melly, Peter O’Toole, Tom Baker and Colin MacInnes (and, rather less iconic to we midcentury types, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Kate Moss). Sadly, such loucheness is now the preserve of nasty, blingy venues and now one can only stand outside No 41 and imagine what it must have been like as those characters stumbled out.

Outside the site of the 2is, hat doffed in tribute

We’re down into Old Compton Street now, and truly into pilgrimage mode as we stop outside No 59, now a fairly indistinct oriental restaurant (but at least in the original building), but a place that can genuinely lay claim to being a birthplace of British Rock’n’Roll, because this was once the 2i’s Coffee Bar. Acquired from the Irani Brothers by promoters Ray Hunter and Paul Lincoln in 1956, and decorated by art school student and aspiring song writer Lionel Bart, the size of this iconic venue – coffee bar upstairs, tiny cellar club with pocket handkerchief stage downstairs – belies its role in the popular music scene of the late 50s. Tommy Steele was discovered here on his first and only performance with the Vipers skiffle group (which didn’t please the Vipers much as they’d hoped it would be their big break), guitarists Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch waited tables and did odd jobs waiting for their break, which came with an introduction to aspiring singer Harry Webb, shortly to become Cliff Richard, and they were followed by a string of other hopefuls some, like Adam Faith and Marty Wilde, en route to pop stardom, others to lesser acclaim but a firm place in the hearts of rock’n’roll fanatics. The 2i’s was the model for the club in the 1959 Cliff Richard and Laurence Harvey film Expresso Bongo, based on a much wittier stage musical parodying the popular music business, and you can also get a feel for how it was in other 50s pop quickies such as the Tommy Steele Story (made only a year after Tommy’s overnight stardom) and The Golden Disc. Not content with one youth-oriented coffee bar, right next door could be found Heaven and Hell – more neon and formica, more Gaggia machines and glass coffee cups – a style that lost its last West End original when the New Piccadilly closed its doors a few years ago.  Again, one can only stand outside and try to picture what it must have been like to visit in its heyday.

The entrance to Ham Yard is all that remains

Breaking our tour for Mrs MidCentury’s birthday lunch at a nearby restaurant (again, a long-established name, but I’m not going to name drop as it was a special treat), we picked up the trail again by crossing Wardour Street. We should have taken the short walk up to see the site of the 1964-1988 home of the Marquee Club at No 90, another venue rooted at the heart of the British music scene. Sadly, after it closed the main building housing the club itself was demolished (24 years of pounding bass lines had weakened the frontage). Likewise, the home of the Flamingo and Whiskey a Go Go at No 33/37, whilst still intact, is just too depressing now it houses nothing more exciting than a nasty Irish theme pub. Instead, we turned out steps towards the last call on our tour and somewhere that can lay claim to be the birthplace of the post-war British jazz scene. Just off the bottom of Great Windmill Street, not far from the Windmill Theatre Revue Bar, is a turning called Ham Yard. Now the site of a smart hotel, this once much less salubrious corner played host to a succession of jazz clubs that pre-date the names now synonymous with the London jazz scene. Long before Ronnie Scott’s opened in Gerrard Street in 1959 or Frith Street in 1965, Club Eleven opened its doors in Ham Yard in 1948. By 1952 it had become Cy Laurie’s jazz club (I know, because my Dad used to go there and it appears in his diaries just before he was called up); after a stint as the Piccadilly Jazz Club, in 1961 it re-emerged as the Scene Club. Acknowledged as probably the Mod club in Soho, all the important faces would hang out there. DJ Guy Stephens had all the best records long before anyone else, having set up the Sue record label and established contacts with practically all the key labels in the US. The Animals played there a lot, and the High Numbers (the band that morphed in the Who) were resident for a period. To stand in Ham Yard is to stand on hallowed ground, even if the ground is much cleaner than it would have been!

It’s cake time…

After all that sub-culture, not to mention a large cocktail and a rather nice red wine, we were both desperate for milder refreshment, so where better than to retrace our steps slightly to Maison Bertaux, London’s oldest French patisserie and cafe founded in 1871. Over a pot of tea at a pavement table, we were able to contemplate Kettner’s restaurant opposite (favourite of Oscar Wilde) and the Coach and Horses pub next door, haunt of Spectator columnist Jeffrey Bernard (often incapable of completing his column after a visit), and actors Tom Baker and John Hurt, and still the venue for Private Eye magazine lunches. Bravely, we resisted the temptation to follow either in their footsteps or of the equally bibulous crowd who frequented the French House round the corner at 49 Old Compton Street, but then there are other birthdays, aren’t there…

Here’s hoping this sparks a few memories of evenings clubbing, and lures you back to Soho to eat, drink and wallow in the atmosphere.

With thanks to those that sought out and published the original photos on-line.  I can claim no ownership for them.

And as if by magic, this week’s final episode of How to be Bohemian by Victoria Coren Mitchell covered many of the same venues and has some very nice original film footage.  It’s currently on BBC iPlayer here.