Eat-ooteries in Central London
It feels like autumn with the leaves still falling but it is winter now and the wind is whistling through the London streets. Almost dark outside at 4.30 and cosy inside.
This is the time you want to find a nice place to be, on your own or with other people – what years ago I coined an ‘eat-ooterie’, a place to ‘eat oot’ (after my Scottish mother-in-law told me that an outside seating area was called a ‘sit-ooterie’).
I made a little folding paper list of my favourite places – ‘Eat-ooteries in Central London’ – and gave it to friends or visitors. Maybe you had one.
Sadly many of these places have now closed down – The Piccadilly Cafe off Shaftesbury Avenue, where the waiters wore white jackets with epaulettes, and most recently and very sadly, Cheng Chuen Ku, the huge trolley dim sum restaurant in Wardour Street.
So I am trying to support those that remain and find new ones.
I spent a few hours at the weekend waiting at various points in London, filling in time. It was noticeable what a difference it made to wait whilst eating in one of these individual and interesting places, how I felt happy and not lonely there on my own, and how corporate chains just don’t do the job at all.
An interesting encounter on Sunday gave me a new insight into Soho, where I have played many gigs over the years, – Ronnie Scott’s, The Borderline, The 12 Bar Club – venues that have now either gone or entered new eras – and also eaten many meals.
Walking past the cheap and cheerful Stockpot I thought I would eat there – for the last time as it turned out. I knew that it was closing but it turned out to be its very last day.
Memories of pre-evening out plates of gnocchi and long-gone day job lunches flooded back as I ate seafood risotto and sympathised with the sad-looking waiter.
An elderly Chinese man spoke to me from the next table.
‘Last day today’, he said.
I said I hadn’t realised and we started talking about The Stockpot and what good value it was, and I found out he had been a manager of a restaurant in Chinatown, that he had lived in Germany for 20 years and that he would only manage to eat all his risotto if I took 3 of the first course of calamari he had ordered and which were too much for him.
He kept coming back to the theme that Cafe Boheme opposite (where I sometimes sang jazz standards for a while many years ago) would give you 50 per cent off with a ‘club card’. And so would the Soho Kitchen next door. I said that was good but I didn’t get up there very often any more.
It was nice to talk to him and after a while I said I had to leave, whereupon he left his seat and said, ‘come with me’.
We crossed the road past another favourite place and Soho institution – the amazing patisserie Maison Bertaux – and he opened the door of a small red and gold signed building with Chinese lettering called ‘The Man Clansmen Association’.
Inside were small tables full of elderly Chinese men and women playing a card game, all of whom returned my polite nods. My new friend opened a small cupboard above the tea-making facilities and took out a pile of cards.
‘Club card – 50 per cent off’, he said.
I wasn’t sure if I should accept it but thanked him outside in Greek Street and said I’d like to send him a present and what was his name – ‘no presents’, he said. ‘My name is Man’. A Clansman.
There are still lots of individual cafes which serve good food cheaply and which are interesting and part of London history. On my list still are Capitan Corelli in Battersea Park Road, cheap proper home cooked food and like being in Italy, and the Bagel Bake in Brick Lane, where they tell you how to say Beigel the London way. And Gaby’s on Charing Cross Road, which was recently saved from closure by petitions.
And Mr Man said New World in Soho still do trolly dim sum, so I will go there next time.