Memoir of a Soho square

Lately, I’ve been catching up with a month’s worth of weekend supplements. It’s a nice thing to do, especially when you have very little money. All that culture, most of it out of reach and well out of the range of my rather functionless wallet.

One thing I love above all else is to read reviews of London restaurants. For the life of me, I can’t work out how I ever managed to eat out when I lived there – but it must be something to do with the fact that I had no dependents. But that’s besides the point – the restaurants that get reviewed by Messrs Rayner, Coren, Lanchester and Gill are very rarely of the type I could afford to eat in.

However, when I read AA Gill’s review of the restaurant 10 Greek Street in 6th May’s Sunday Times Style and I found myself becoming slightly emotional, for several reasons – mainly nostalgic ones.

Greek Street is part of an area of London I knew very well, and it provided me with a wealth of wonderful, semi-youthful memories – some of them admittedly hazy.

The lovely Adrian began his review by expressing that peculiarly parental phenomenon, surprise that his eldest daughter was growing up. She’s now 21 – where had all the years gone? He then went on for about a paragraph about how Soho restaurants have changed. Now, the area is buzzing with “high aspiration, low remuneration” restaurants, like the one he was reviewing. He pointed out that this marks a big change from 20 years ago,”when Soho restaurants were all about patrician snobbery and jet-set sophistication.”

Yours truly in Carnaby Street, 1989

Two things struck me about this. Firstly – the part about 20 years ago. I don’t know about you but, at the time of writing, I’m 42 years old, but still, when I see “20 years ago” written down, I’m imagining an era of fewer cars, kipper ties, flared trousers, and Z-Cars still being on telly. But then it struck me, in the manner of a lorry going at full pelt, that “20 years ago” was 1992, and I’d already been living in London for three years. Where have all the years gone? Secondly – Adrian Gill’s circles, even then, were vastly different to mine. Obviously, as a poorly waged shop assistant, I knew the type of restaurant to avoid and they probably were the ones who were all about snobbery. But I always found Soho to be a hive of value-for-money places to eat.

My favourite, albeit on the fringe of Soho in Cambridge Circus, was Centrale, a tiny, run-down hovel of a place, with chipped formica tables, wooden benches and not even a sniff of an licence to sell alcohol. Here, what appeared to be an extended family of indifferent, verging on downright grumpy, Italian matriarchs would rustle up magnificent, mountainous portions of pasta or gnocchi for next to nothing. Their only proviso, much in keeping with neighbouring Chinatown, was that you eat up quickly and bugger off to let someone else spend their fiver. It was wonderful. Sadly, it is long gone, and I now regret that I didn’t go more often – not that anything they served was outwith my own kitchen repertoire, but just the idea that the 20-something me didn’t realise that being so well fed for so little money was going to end up being the stuff of memory alone.

Not far down the road from there, on Old Compton Street, was Pollo Bar, another cheap, but slightly more cheerful, Italian outlet with a seemingly endless menu of pasta dishes and pizzas. It also had the most drinkable table wine with which to wash it all down. I went here as frequently as I did to Centrale, often alone, on nights when the inevitable loneliness of the big city began to get to me. That said, the occasion I recall most was a 1991 work Christmas do in its basement, which started with light refreshment and ended up in sambuca abuse. Still, all was merry and came with a bill that didn’t involve cutting the Christmas present budget.

Apart from restaurants, one of the things I enjoyed most about Soho’s streets was its plethora of tiny coffee bars – I could cheerfully wander around the streets, looking in shops, and stop off for a quick coffee here, there and everywhere. Obviously, there still is, and always has been, the wonderful Bar Italia on Frith Street – a place I almost ran to on my last London visit. But there were many more, all apparently gone, either replaced or put out of business by those awful chains of cod-west coast American nightmares, where “coffee” (i.e. brown coffee-scented gravy) is sold in gigantic buckets and lurks under a foot of thick, beige sludge – I believe they have the audacity to term this caffé latte or even cappuccino, but I’m sure you’re clever enough to ignore the labels.

I am, of course, heart sick about the demise of these little, family-run Italian bars. What these American places have done is ruined what coffee is all about – an entire generation has grown up thinking that that’s what coffee should taste like, that that’s how it should be served. My rule of thumb with coffee has always been the same – if I know that a cafe’s merchandise is going to be inferior to what I can make at home with my Moka Bialetti, it’s not worth paying for. And most coffee isn’t worth paying for.

I digress; my point was that Soho, in my experience, was always a place where food culture was alive, where I could eat well, and report home to Mamma and Nonna that I was well fed and would, so long as I remained gainfully employed, remain so. I’m glad to know that it hasn’t changed that much. God bless Soho.

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