Having posted a selection of photos of central London taken in the 1980s, I started trawling back through other albums and was saddened to see how many great midcentury venues we’d lost in the past decade or so. It’s one thing to find that buildings photographed on wet film have gone, but when you’re looking at places that had survived into the era of digital photography but have now disappeared, there’s a sense that nothing is sacred. One I haven’t covered here is Trader Vic’s below the Hilton Hotel, only because I’ve written about it recently and the loss still smarts. Here, then, is a selection that can only be entitled either ‘In Memoriam’ or ‘Should have gone there more often when I had the chance’…
Let’s start with a real lost gem, the New Piccadilly cafe in Denman Street, just off Piccadilly Circus. This 50s original had survived virtually untouched until 2007, when a combination of rising rents and pointless administrative overhead drove owner Lorenzo ‘Lolly’ Marioni to call time. It was a genuine bastion of Soho cafe culture – dripping in chrome and formica, and dominated by the steaming coffee machine – but avoiding any sense of being a ‘theme venue’; it was like that because that’s how it had been created and it had never changed. Even the menus harked back to a previous era, not just in classic dishes (served in classic dishes of course), but also because Lolly found it easier just to add stickers and handwritten amendments than to get them all reprinted. It was much loved, and there are many tributes on line including some great photo collections (see the Urban75 blog for some excellent interior and exterior shots) and an interview with Lolly himself in the Guardian archive that echoes what we heard at first hand when we dropped in for a farewell meal in his last week of operating. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t take photographs of the equally original Italian restaurant a little further up the road, owned and run by another branch of the Marioni family, which bit the dust shortly afterwards as part of the Jamie Oliverisation of the area.
South of Leicester Square, Whitcomb Street is now another featureless expanse of modern hotel space but once boasted the drinking haunt of the cream of British radio comedy. The Hand and Racquet pub was sufficiently close to the Paris Theatre in Lower Regent Street to provide liquid inspiration for performers and writers alike working on the shows recorded there, although some allegedly needed some persuasion to leave and get back to work. Such was its renown that the writers of Hancock’s Half Hour, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, adopted the name for Hancock’s local in the fictional suburb of East Cheam. After running out of steam and closing in 2008, it sad empty and decaying for a number of years while various planning applications were turned down, meaning that when its demise eventually came in 2014 it had been thoroughly gutted by break-ins, which meant none of the iconic hand and racquet light fittings remained. Sadly, I was too late to rescue the already faded hanging signs, but managed to negotiate liberation of the wall signs and carry them to the Museum of Comedy in St Giles (see my earlier post for the full story).
A little further afield, but with a Soho connection, takes us to another lost classic eatery, the Stockpot in Chelsea. One of the oldest restaurants on the King’s Road, the Stockpot had been doling out tasty and affordable grub for decades, with a clientele including luminaries like Eric Clapton and Charlie Watts, together with cash-strapped doyens of Chelsea’s arty set and ordinary folk in search of a plateful of tasty food without paying King’s Road prices. I well remember dropping in there with a gang from work towards the end of a long evening walk, with much trepidation amongst some of our number as to whether our more junior staff would be able to afford to eat in a Chelsea restaurant, only to find themselves shovelling down the Stockpot’s dishes and marvelling at the value. Inevitably, the Chelsea Stockpot when the way of its Cambridge Circus sister outlet in 2017 when the building’s owners, impatient at the determination of the restaurant’s managers to keep going despite regular punitive rent rises, employed the simple expedient of changing the locks to allow them to instal another vital purveyor of bling sh*t (so vital to the Chelsea community).
With no geographical logic, we’re heading south of Waterloo station now, to Lower Marsh. Until recent years, this was an overlooked street, running from the Old Vic around the back of the station to the south end of Westminster Bridge, full of outlets that seemed to have escaped homogenisation. Where else so close to central London could you find a menswear shop like Trussons, a shop dedicated to railway books, a second hand clothes shop dubbed ‘What the Butler Wore’, or a cafe celebrating the ‘Chunnel’ (and when did we last refer to it by that name?). It was also a street where you were more likely to encounter local residents from the surrounding flats than tourists. We were drawn there regularly by an amazing vintage shop, Radio Days, run by the energetic Lee, and where you’d not only get a wide range of vintage goodies but also at least half an hour’s fascinating conversation. The redevelopment monster’s hard at work, though, with some of the buildings disappearing entirely and the occupants of others being forced out to be replaced by boilerplate outlets so that it will conform with the corporate ‘any street in any town’ style the developers are determined to impose on us. Radio Days went a few years ago, making the raincoat, ties and tiepins scored from there all the more precious.
Dashing up to Piccadilly now, and a street that I thought would never change. White Horse Street links the plush frontages of Piccadilly itself with the cosmopolitan delights of Shepherd Market and is one of those streets I again thought had escaped the developers’ attention. Still wearing decades’ worth of grime, the buildings stood out as survivors of the Blitz that provided a combination of working and living accommodation for ordinary folk, offering a London streetscape that’s hard to find anywhere near the centre. So much for that hope – for the past couple of years the whole street has been sheeted in scaffolding while everything behind the facades is demolished, leaving only the Disney-fied impression, ready to be filled with more high-end retail accommodation of no real use to anyone. I’m just relieved that I remembered to point a camera down there while it was untouched.
Two buildings that remain, for a change, but both no longer the iconic Soho venues they used to be. The first Kettners, has had a turbulent recent history after over a hundred years as a focal point of Soho’s eateries. Opened in 1867 by a former chef of Napoleon III, it was one of London’s first French restaurants. It became (in)famous as a venue where King Edward VII courted mistress, Lillie Langtry, stayed open throughout two World Wars, survived the Blitz, and was a favourite of celebrities including Bing Crosby and Agatha Christie. Then in 1980, it was acquired by the founder of the Pizza Express chain, but managed to retain its style while introducing an upmarket version of the pizza menu. Purchased by the Pizza Express business itself in 2002, it again adapted successfully, adding a champagne bar, before being restored to a French restaurant in 2008 and then, in 2016, after 149 years’ continuous operation, it was closed for the dreaded ‘renovation’, opening two years later with the interior stripped out in favour of a more ‘modern’ look (ie like every other restaurant, anywhere) and upmarket menu. So, basically, keeping only the building and the name and ditching everything else. Another 2018 loss was the Gay Hussar, this time after 65 years in the business during which it became well-known as a hotbed of political intrigue, particularly for the Labour party, as well as satirists like Richard Ingrams from Private Eye magazine. Again, it re-opened a couple of years later as the Noble Rot, offering a ‘modern Soho vibe’ but with ‘a nod to its past’ in the inclusion of a couple of Hungarian-inspired dishes. But it ain’t the Gay Hussar.
I’m going to finish with one that might still be there, though I’m not hopeful. I confess, it isn’t one I’ve visited, but is a classic of its kind and another that I’m amazed has lasted this long. Just around the corner from Leicester Square tube station sits this ‘Ristorante Italiano’, with signage that speaks of a long history. If it’s still there, let’s use it – and if it goes, I want that clock!
If there’s a message behind this slightly depressing list of casualties, it’s cherish what’s there while you have the chance. The developers are lurking…
Back soon with something a little less angry!