The London Review of Breakfasts

"Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper." (Francis Bacon)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A history of Soho in five cafes

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 magazine.

Maison Bertaux (est. 1871)
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 Cafe (est.1934)
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.

Bar Italia (est. 1949)
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.

Bar Bruno (est. 1978)
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.


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