London is gasping — so where to go but Soho, which is so good at despair? It is often necrotic but now, of the central London districts, it feels the most alive. Mayfair is a pretty corpse — I pity the luxury services industry, for its clients are in hiding — but Soho’s restaurants have spread themselves on to the streets and it feels as interesting as it used to, a place that has found its purpose again. It has been over–gentrified — the renovation of Raymond’s Revue Bar is horrifying, because they closed the revue bar and kept the signage — but now it feels giddy and important: a home for the insensible and the brave.
Soho has known worse things, after all. In the Broad (now Broadwick) Street cholera outbreak of 1854, 127 people died in three days; by the end 616 were dead. All London is built on bones, but you feel it here, and that is why you feast.
The outbreak began at the Broad Street pump and was identified as a waterborne disease by Dr John Snow, who noticed that those who used the Rupert Street and Carnaby Street pumps did not get it, and nor did men who worked in breweries. There is a replica pump opposite Hearst Magazines, which feels odd, and a pub named for Snow in thanks.
It is strange to be a critic whose art form is floundering. I go to perfect restaurants to pray for their survival. The French House is one such and it is open for dining, at least as I write, but that may change again. It is a tall, red-brick rectangle on Dean Street hung with Union Jacks and French Tricolours — you need not choose here, there are more important things — and it is one of the ‘lethal triangle’ of pubs for dead artistic drunks, along with the Colony Room, which is now a presumably haunted flat opposite Blacks club, and the Coach and Horses, where my late colleague Jeffrey Bernard would file his copy from a puddle made of regrets.
The Coach and Horses was briefly vegan, which feels wrong, but the French House honours its past, while so much of Soho does not. I speak of Kettner’s, which fell to Soho House and its spurious velvets, and Quo Vadis, where Karl Marx’s children died, which is a restaurant and private members’ club, horrifying in its vapidity. But all Marx’s haunts are restaurants, bars or private clubs now. I checked, and it made me laugh.
The French House was officially called York Minster until the cathedral fire of 1984, when donations were misdirected to the pub and claret was misdirected to the cathedral. We ascend a tiny staircase, decorated with portraits of former clients — this is rare these days, and cheering when so many restaurants look like leaky spas — to a small first-floor dining room, ruddy and wooden. There are red roses on the tables for romance with yourself, and good art (De Gaulle with an upside-down face; dead men who look fat and happy because they are, or were, in the French House).
The menu is on a blackboard over the bar; the view is of Soho; my companion sits behind a photograph of a man with a cigar and mad eyes. It is socially distanced, but that is agreeable, not threatening, in a small dining room. Three tables are taken in a place with space for six.
We eat food that is perfect, but not so overwrought it demands to be congratulated: food that is a pleasure to eat. It is French in style, obviously: oysters; smoked salmon; steak with frites; and calves’ brains with butter and parsley. It is all sublime; then we sit and watch Soho thrive amid chaos, because that is what she is for.
The French House, 49 Dean Street, London W1D 5BG, tel: 020 7437 2477.
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