June 12th, 2005


Half A Sixpence

Like many inhabitants of London, I don't spend much of my recreational time in the ground-zero West End. Since what paid work I do is based at home, I've even less reason to visit. If I do venture there, it's usually the folllowing areas:

1. Denmark Street - for the 12 Bar Club and music shops. And the Korean restaurants and supermarket at the back.
2. Chinatown - for the restaurants and supermarkets.
3. Brewer Street - as above, but Japanese.
4. Berwick Street - for record shops.
5. Leicester Square and surrounding diaspora of cinemas.

Things vanish in London. The process isn't quite as fast as in other places I've lived (Tokyo, Osaka), but it happens. Once a place disappears, it often vanishes from memory. I've noticed recently how many restaurants and cafes seem to have evaporated from the map, most notably in Soho. Since I don't visit the area that often, it's difficult to keep up to date with what's happened on every street.

A few weeks ago I noticed that Centrale had gone. As has Pollo and also that other one a few doors along Old Compton Street next to to the Molly Moggs. Presto [yes!]? These restaurants were all that budget end of the Soho restaurant scene, but they were all permanent parts of the landscape. Or so I'd assumed. I know that rents have risen greatly in the area. I don't know how much this extinction is do with changing tastes. Whilst even the most average of gastropubs can charge £8-9 a plate, these places were still at around £5-6 and sometimes less. The quality was variable and it was generally a distinctly Anglo-Italian version of the cuisine. But that food, as well as the interiors and staff, told a story. I suppose their vanishing does as well. Like when Blooms shut down in the East End.

There would seem to have been two sorts of competition to these family owned establishments. On one hand, there's the Bella Pasta world of chain Italian food and, on the other, there are the restaurants that claim greater authenticity and quality/regionality of cooking. The old Soho style was falling out of vogue and now it's just about gone.

I was looking at Russell Davies' eggbaconchipsbeans sub-site last night. It's in the Classic Cafes way of things. Personally, I'm with the chips-as-heterodox group when it comes to a cooked breakfast, but even if I don't favour his menu choice, I enjoy his documentary of these places that are overlooked in almost all restaurant guides. I read with horror that he suggested that the New Piccadilly was closing down. I suppose it's to be expected, but, but, but...

You can view a 360 pan of the interior here. Here's an interview with its dapper proprietor Lorenzo Marioni ("I'm standing there," he says, "smoking a Player's Navy Cut, and looking at the stars."). Those two links say as much as I can on the subject. I last walked past the New Piccadilly about two months ago, I was relieved to see it was still there. I always favoured Valoti's, since it was still open during my Soho years, but I'd visit the New Piccadilly from time to time. Well, the last time was probably about a year ago. Soon it will all be gone. This is what it feels like to get old, to bedgrudge the new as rubbish, to have the city haunted with too much memory, ghost restaurants floating before upstart contemporary interiors, get out the way grandad. "Now, son, there used to be a..." What has remained in Soho for me from the beginning? I wondered. The only thing I could really come up with was the neon LAS VEGAS sign outside the arcade, since I spent a fair amount of time there from the age of 13. No, not like that...

As far as I can work out, the New Piccadilly is still open. I shall visit this week and say my goodbyes in case I miss the actual closure. No, the food is nothing spectacular, but it never claimed to be. There's plenty of restaurants that will serve you indifferent food with alluring menu descriptions. Tart cards. I wonder whether Signor Marioni might want to sell on some of the interior fixtures when he closes. I'd love to take a small part of London history and put it in my own establishment when it opens.

(And what happened to Tommy Steele?)

On a lighter note, I was pleased to see that the Players' Theatre look to be having another season in the West End from September 18th. It's a shame they had to give up their premises under The Arches off Villiers Street, but at least they're still going. It should be a fine few evenings out. It's not often you get to toast Queen Victoria these days and there's not many gentlemen left like Dominic Le Foe. I'm not entirely convinced by their recommendation of dining at The Apogée and would suggest Sheekey's may be more in keeping with the theme. That still leaves the problem of what to wear as you'll be competing with The Count and others in their Victorian and Edwardian finery. Perhaps I'll go as Mayakovsky then. I'd be happy to invite anyone interested by the prospect of an evening of music hall as my guest, although I should give fair warning that colonials should expect a degree of well-mannered ridicule from the stage. Here's a bibliography concerning music hall, here is a history and this article is worth a read. Some recordings may be heard or purchased here, here and indeed here.

One friend, when I mention music hall, makes the comment "Why did music hall die out?...because it was crap". Hmm.