by Malcolm Eggs
Amid all the talk
of Soho's slow drift into becoming just another homogenised part of central London, here's a piece I wrote in 2012 for Esquire
Maison Bertaux (est.
This salon du thé
was founded by refugees escaping the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune and now
stands as the most enchanting remnant of a time when Soho was also the ‘French
quarter’. Amazingly, the business has only changed hands twice in the last
140 years. The current owner, Michelle, started working here as a ‘Saturday
girl’ in 1971. Her establishment deploys replica roses, French café music, pink
netting and paperback novels to create an atmosphere that makes you want to get
into handwritten correspondences with women of unclear motives. Breakfast
is coffee with buttery croissants and pastries made, as they have been since forever,
fresh on the premises.
The ‘Star Special’, served all day, is two eggs, bacon,
sausage and tomatoes. It comes with a round of hot buttered toast and is
delicious, especially the eggs, which have been basted in hot oil so as to
slightly seal the yolks. This dish hasn’t changed much since the
cafe was founded, although the owner Mario notes that the menu has gradually
lost the likes of bread and dripping, to be replaced with things like eggs Florentine.
His father, Pop, bought the business for £320, at a time when the building also
hosted the mysterious Baudha Manoli Yaghurt Company.
Note: Mario Forte sadly passed away in the spring of 2014 and The Star is now run by his daughter Julia.
At breakfast-time Bar Italia is authentically Italian or in
other words completely indifferent to the idea of eating. If you must have
food, there are a few pastries on the bar, but the main event is coffee,
preferably espresso, flowing from a clanking Gaggia machine and then drunk either perched inside
on a high stool, or around one of the crowded stainless steel tables on the
street outside. The onetime subject of a Pulp song, Bar Italia has a large
plasma TV for sporting events: fitting given that this
is the building from which John Logie Baird transmitted the world’s first
recognisable television images.
In a strip of shops containing Pret a Manger, Carphone
Warehouse and a brash arcade called Las Vegas, Bar Bruno is a comforting sight
– one of those classic London hybrids of trattoria,
sandwich bar and greasy spoon. The original Bruno sold up just over a decade
ago, and the site of his cafe began its life as a food establishment in around 1960 when an entrepreneurial couple found they could do a roaring
trade selling tea, coffee and biscuits from a small space next to where you’ll
now find the crisp rack. Today, good, hearty, greasy breakfasts and strong cups
of tea are dished out to an endless stream of regulars.
Balans Café (est
1987) and Balans (est 1993)
There are a lot of chain restaurants in Soho, but the key
difference with Balans is that it started here. Founded when the Soho clubbing scene was at its peak, Balans was designed to fit
in with the resulting clock-indifferent lifestyles. Among other things (‘chill-out room chic’
furniture and soundtrack) this meant serving breakfast in the middle of the night, after the clubs shut but before the first train home.
If you want excellent cinnamon French toast or a breakfast burrito at 3am, this
is still where you come.