The London Dossier: Chapter 2 – Food

A rough guide to London, circa 1967: a weekly look at Len Deighton’s London Dossier, a guide to modern London published during the height of the allegedly swinging sixties.

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Gone but not forgotten, the New Piccadilly Cafe by Buckaroo Kid

In his introduction to this chapter, Len claims London can provide food as fine as any in the world, “if your tastes run to jellied eels, boiled beef and heavy dumplings.” He’s not being entirely fair as he goes on to praise many of his fave London eateries. A long-gone restaurant on Dean Street does Italian home cooking at its best. “Just say you are hungry and leave the rest to them”, he advises. And he clearly love Indian meals, although “most curry restaurants are owned by Pakistanis, have red velvet wallpaper, stars on the ceiling and undrinkable coffee.” Thanks for that, Len. On to the chapter itself.

Adrian Bailey was and for all we know still is a photographer, journalist, writer and foodie. He gets what you might consider the short straw when given a whole chapter to write about London’s food. After all, the notion that London and great food can be uttered in the same sentence is anathema to many people (mostly foreigners) even today. Heaven knows what it was like back in the 60s.

Well, it was pretty dire. Most of the upmarket London restaurants were irredeemably French and Bailey dismisses them as expensive and complacent. “The staff are rarely French” he adds, disapprovingly. Italian restaurants fare better. San Lorenzo in Beauchamp Place was going strong even then. Bailey notes that Londoners who have never even been to Italy can manage spaghetti and can say things like grazie and ciao.

Seafood restaurants were plentiful. Manzi’s, Sheekey’s, Wheeler’s, Scott’s… which does Bailey recommend? “I must confess to not knowing”, he writes. “I cannot make up my mind and can do little to help you make up yours.”

We’re on safer ground with pubs. Most serve good, simple food, he tells us, before going on to describe two that don’t. At The Hand & Flower, opposite Olympia, the visitor frequently receives a personal welcome from the owner (or his son), before tucking into oysters fresh that morning from Whitstable and X-rayed to ensure perfection. I am not making this up. And in De Hems in Macclesfield Street, they’re so besotted with oysters that the walls are entirely covered in oyster shells. Always thought it was bit pongy in there.

Bailey loves London’s markets. Many still exist, of course, but it’s a fair bet that much of what goes on in them has changed or ceased. For example, in 1967 “brewers buy most of their hops in Borough Market”. Brewers? Hops? What mad world was this? The London Hop Exchange is still there today – at least the building is – but many won’t know that the trade was so important back then that the local telephone exchange was ‘HOP’. (Most exchanges’ 3-letter prefixes were based on where they were, not what happened there.)

In 1960s London, anyone wanting to eat late into the night or early in the morning was spoilt for choice. There was the Kensington Palace Hotel and, well, that’s where the spoiling came to an abrupt end, because the other choices were the Earl’s Court Wimpy, the West London Air Terminal and, “for steak and more” Steak Encore in Leicester Square.

Sandwich shops were everywhere, even then. One gets a special mention from Adrian because it sells sarnies made with wholemeal bread. The very idea. A Greek restaurant in Charlotte Street sold a bread called pita “that looks like an oven glove”. You couldn’t buy real French bread anywhere in London, according to Bailey, but if you wanted the best ice cream outside Italy you headed for Marine Ices on Haverstock Hill. Much as you still do today.

For Londoners on the move, there were the jellied eel, whelk, cockle and mussel stalls. “There’s usually one in Cambridge Circus, white-lit by naptha-lamp. The aficionados eat jellied eels with a hunk of white bread and spit the bones on the pavement.” Charming.

It seems the proliferation of coffee shops is nothing new. “Kenco Coffee Houses have sprung up all over the place”, observes Bailey. “Most are licensed and serve such items as quiche lorraine”. WTF? The Steak Houses (Angus etc) were around back then, too, and Adrian thought they were pretty good. “You can have potted shrimps, smoked fish or perhaps pate, steak or chops.”

Fancy home delivery? No problem, unless you fancy pizza, Chinese, an Indian or anything else you might reasonably expect. Just call the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Home Meal Delivery Service (KENsington 5512), and they’ll knock you up Duck à l’Orange and a bottle of Mateus Rosé within the hour. Moveable Feasts – props for that name – will deliver you a complete 3-course gourmet meal, although as they require a full day’s notice it might not be ideal for your spontaneous London happening.

Any celebrity chefs in 1967? In a word, no. The chattering classes would have heard of Robert Carrier, who’d opened a restaurant in Camden Passage and who later got his own TV series. Otherwise, the 1967 version of Gordon Ramsey or Marco Pierre White was one Alvaro Maccioni, whose star was the “brightest in the London firmament” and whose restaurant was just off the Kings Road. And in one of those neat little instances showing that you’re closer to the past than you might think, Alvaro – and his restaurant – are still there.

Next week, Adrian Bailey (yes, again, perhaps as a reward) looks at pubs and drinking. Cheers!

By Kevin Mills

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