Amid the bronze cladding of Soho, with its pop-up, suck-down restaurants – the Cadbury’s Creme Egg Café was a nadir – Maison Bertaux hangs on, the oldest French patisserie in the UK, and 151 this year.
It was founded by Monsieur Bertaux, a Communard fleeing France with a book of recipes. Their loss, our gain. Perhaps in 2173, if we are still here, there will be a similarly beloved patisserie in Rwanda. Let us hope so, for their sakes. He came here because Soho was polyglot, though it isn’t now. It’s an impersonation of a former Soho because that’s the fashion now: destroy something, pretend to lament it and build a tinny echo of that which you killed. Karl Marx’s haunts are cocktail bars. The Colony Room Club is someone’s flat: the social cleansing of alcoholics.
This is real: a glass frontage under two early Victorian houses next to the Coach & Horses on Greek Street in what used to be a Little France. A very little France, which is how the English like it. The houses are painted a cheerful blue: a colour with the kind of mad clarity you never find in Soho. It is early morning, and Soho sweeps itself clean, or it tries. The smell of these streets is so evocative I could place them from the moon: carbon monoxide, sugar, alcohol, bleach. Like all very old restaurants – this one reminds me of Maxim’s in Paris with its shuttered velvet rooms – it contains spectres of celebrity customers doing something as normal as eating. Alexander McQueen had his birthday party here. Jeffrey Bernard came and slept when the Coach & Horses closed in the afternoon. Virginia Woolf ate her feelings, though unsuccessfully. So did Karl Marx, who shagged his maid up the road in what is now the private members’ club Quo Vadis, because that’s liberty.
Maison Bertaux is opposite Soho House, which is like a tin of Farrow & Ball paint you can apply to preen in. Still, Maison Bertaux is that strange thing in central London these days: a real place. This is no vision from someone who does not have one, panicked, and built an airport lounge. It is more a kind of urban rewilding to thrill people who want Soho to be lived in, not passed through: a cake shop from the time of the Profumo affair. The floors and tables are plastic and shabby; the windows are unrenovated and grubby; the curtains make no apology, and they are net. Objects have accumulated because that’s normal: an ancient telephone, a photograph of Maison Bertaux as it was when Queen Victoria dreamed of cream cake, a piano, some tinsel, a sign that says ‘Please pay bills at the cash desk downstairs’, a clock.
It’s an art gallery too: they show Harry Hills and Timothy Spalls. Today there are unframed paintings on cardboard. I like them because they look like screams. The owner takes me under the road to admire an ancient bread oven. I have seen too many sustainability–themed pop-up restaurants, and so I want to lick it. Now they bake the cakes upstairs, and the building is filled with the smell of them.
The cakes are exactly what you would expect from a house that has made them this long: competent. There is a solidity to them: a mixed-fruit cheesecake; marzipan figs; strawberry and raspberry tarts; croissants; fancies; meringues; éclairs. People aren’t simple, but pastries are. There may be a new patisserie at the Berkeley Hotel this year, which charges £135 per head, but I know I won’t like it more than this one. Maison Bertaux is simple and, London being what is it, this is extraordinary.
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Maison Bertaux, 28 Greek St, London W1D 5DQ; tel 020 7437 6007.
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