Tag Archives: London’s restaurants

Coffee and Cabs

I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve requested an “Old Paradise Flat White”, from my coffee chain of choice.

Costa Coffee has been with us for over 50 years now, starting in 1971 when Sergio and Bruno Costa arrived in London and started a small roastery in Fenchurch Street in an attempt to change the drinking habits of Londoners. They blind-testing 112 variations of coffee before producing their signature blend, naming it ‘Mocha Italia’, and apart from recently tweaking the roasting time this blend is identical to their original formulation.

I worked for six years in Clerkenwell’s ‘Little Italy’, and a request for coffee then was a proffered cup of instant brown liquid from a ‘greasy spoon’ often run by a family of Italians. In fact, only in Soho during the 1960s was it possible to get a real cup of coffee.

Demand for the Costa brother’s coffee grew, and in 1978 they built a roastery in Old Paradise Street, Lambeth, hence the name of my coffee of choice.

Three years later the brothers opened their first Costa Coffee shop on Vauxhall Bridge Road and became the first coffee provider in London to serve Espresso and crafted Cappuccino in a porcelain cup.

That first coffee house is now the CA Japanese Pancakes.

Taken from Costa Coffee

So what has this to do with London’s cabs, I hear you ask. As Costa state on its site:

Before we opened our famous coffee shops we sold our coffee beans to prestigious hotels in London, such as The Ritz, and they were delivered in style by famous London black cabs.

The featured image of the first Costa Coffee shop was taken from Google Street View.

The India Club

Oh! How we would laugh on The Knowledge, finding two strand hotels situated on Strand (note the absence of the definite article, unlike The Knowledge).

The first hotel, the Strand Palace – 4-star, 785 bedrooms, doorman, concierge service, gym and afternoon tea – with a room rate of £400 a night.

Its namesake, the exotically named Hotel Strand Continental with a tea maker, shared bathroom, twin bed and breakfast thrown in for £37.

Basic, but not bad considering Theatreland is opposite and the Strand Palace at £400 is 150 yards down the road, and curiously the more expensive is currently closed due to coronavirus, while its cheaper brother is still open.

But what we didn’t realise while on The Knowledge was that the Hotel Strand Continental has hidden up a flight of stairs a social and dining club. Founded in 1951 when its founder members included Lady Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru, it still retains its original colonial features with portraits and photographs from India’s independence.

Unlike most London clubs, the India Club is open to all and feels like stepping back 70 years. The very reasonably priced food gets mixed reviews but there are few in such a central location offering this level of service and value.

Now this venerable institution looks to be lost as the building’s owners want to redevelop the hotel.

Marston Properties, the hotel’s owners tried two years ago to revamp the building. Following an outcry, the planning application was refused, due to the “loss of an important cultural and nighttime entertainment use (the India Club restaurant/bar)”. They did then offer to revamp the hotel while retaining “a restaurant” on the second floor but then withdrew that planning application.

Now they are trying to circumvent the planning problem of having an “important cultural venue” as a tenant by evicting that tenant by employing an 80 per cent hike in the rent.

During this pandemic, many landlords are helping to retain their tenants by coming to a compromise over the due fees. Marston Properties, however, are bucking the trend by nearly doubling the rent, if they succeed in evicting the India Club they’ll be able to resubmit their planning application and redevelop the hotel as they wish, and then no doubt increase the room rate.

Images courtesy of the India Club

1947 London

Ihave discovered at 33 Charlotte Street (entrance in Rathbone Street), a restaurant called 1947 London, once this virus malarkey is over I’ll have to have a curry there.

In 1947, London was a different place, and it was a world I was about to join in Fitzrovia, a stone’s throw from Rathbone Street.

Not that I was born in a restaurant you understand, but at the adjacent Middlesex Hospital, now demolished and turned into a shopping venue with the prosaic name of ‘Mid Town’.

Among My Souvenirs by Frank Sinatra was No. 1 for 4 weeks during which time I was born.

The top fiction book of the year was The Miracle of the Bells by Russell Janne, while the non-fiction leader was Peace of Mind by Joshua L. Liebma. No me neither.

In 1947 the top-selling movie was Gentleman’s Agreement starring Gregory Peck, with everyone watching the film in a cinema, just imagine the packed seats and no popcorn. Ealing Studios released Hue and Cry starring Alastair Sim, regarded as the first of the Ealing Comedies.

In 1947 British coal mines were nationalised. Kenneth Arnold made the first widely-reported UFO sighting near Mount Rainier, Washington. Mikhail Kalashnikov designed his eponymous gun the AK-47 assault rifle, probably responsible for more deaths than any firearm.

Conversely the Nobel Peace Prize that year went to Friends Service Council, and not the inventor of the world’s most successful gun.

George Orwell started his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, picturing a totalitarian Big Brother regime controlling its citizens from a building based on Senate House in Bloomsbury adjacent to Fitzrovia.

Back to the war theme, The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was established, and accurate ballistic missiles were created. Iceland declared a peaceful independence from Denmark. But Britain decided to create its very own atomic bomb, just at the time of major cuts in power supply due to shortages of fuel with the temporary suspension of BBC television from the beginning of the year until 11 March. Broadcasting was up and running though by the 20th November as 400,000 watched Princess Elizabeth marry Philip Mountbatten at Westminster Abbey.

On 14th March the Thames flooded as that exceptionally harsh winter ended with a thaw. Charlton won the FA Cup at Wembley.

The post-war baby boom reached its peak in March, with the year ending with a record 829,863 births.

Oh yes! Soft toilet paper first went on sale at Harrods.

Barging Around

Despite atrocious weather, with high winds and driving rain, entering the Prince Regent, a floating restaurant on the Regents Canal (where else?) was a welcome, and warmer, relief.

Moored just yards from Paddington Station the two-and-a-half-hour cruise in the converted barge takes you from Little Venice, through the Maida Hill Tunnel, past a large community of barges moored behind the Lisson Grove power station. At this point we were apparently gongoozlers, meaning bystanders who enjoy watching the activities of boats as they pass them.

We were gongoozlers

The trip skirts around the London Zoo, where you can see the wild dog enclosure, and finally ending at Camden Town, where the Prince Regent turned around and retraced the route back to Paddington.

I have spent nearly 30 years discovering London, whilst studying for The Knowledge and later driving a cab, thinking I knew most secret places, but this trip was a revelation. The very large number of people living on well-maintained colourful and not so ship-shape vessels on the water, palm and banana trees at the water’s edge, and barges with deck chairs and plants upon their roofs, one even had a play area with an arbour of wisteria, none of which I’ve ever seen in central London.

Light at the end of the tunnel

As for lunch, just how can you produce an exceptional 5-course meal for 10 diners (more apparently in high season) in a galley measuring 6ft by 15ft?

Not the cheapest meal (it was a gift), with four fish-based courses: oyster in batter; smoked salmon and horseradish; mackerel and tomatoes; and Cornish cod with a stunning raisin and chicken jus. This was followed by pear and caramelised mousse. Highly recommended.

A culinary classic

London restaurants are ephemeral. As the ‘famous faces’ become well known, before long they want to offer culinary delights, but their failure list is endless: Pharmacy, Bank, Tiddy Dols, Mirabelle. As cabbies, we have to learn their location and as inevitably as eggs are eggs they fall from fashion and are gone.

Their reputations are based upon publicity, usually on the back of their famous owners, and upon their unusual and ‘innovative’ menus.

[B]ut one establishment knows its clientele, they should, their diners are probably the great-great-great descendants of an early patron. Wilton’s has been serving ‘English’ food since 1742 and with prices to match their reputation. Bertie Wooster would not seem out of place here in conversation about the servants at Blandings Castle while enjoying a lunch of guinea fowl.

Wilton’s is the oldest restaurant in London. George William Wilton opened the original location in Haymarket as a shellfish mongers. It passed down through his family until the name became Wilton’s Shellfish Mongers and Oyster Rooms.

The restaurant seems to have been itinerant moving to Little King Street, onwards to Great Ryder Street then to Kings Street, Duke Street was next before a return to Kings Street. Next, it alighted in Bury Street and finally in 1964 settled in Jermyn Street.

It has had many owners and one story which it worth retelling involves a Mrs Bessie Leal who acquired the licence in 1930. Bessie ran the restaurant with her two female associates During the Second World War one evening in 1942 Bessie was talking to one of her regular customers, a Mr Olaf Hambro, who was dining alone at the bar. Without warning a bomb, which landed near St James’s Church Piccadilly, shook not only the walls of Wiltons but Bessie’s nerves.

As history has it, Mrs Leal folded her tea towel, unpinned her apron and then proclaimed that she no longer wished to live in London during the war and wished to sell Wiltons. She asked Mr Hambro if he knew of anybody who would be in a position to purchase the restaurant, to which he calmly replied that ‘he did not know of anybody other than himself’!

A somewhat surprised and relieved Mrs Leal inquired at the end of his meal how he wished to proceed to which he replied “put the restaurant at the end of the bill!” and she did just that! The following day she packed her bags and left for Cornwall, never to return to her beloved restaurant.

Featured image: Wilton’s Restaurant, 55 Jermyn Street, noted since 1742 for the finest oysters, fish and game by “Tweedland” The Gentlemen’s Club