To my mind, the finest dining establishments in London aren't in the Michelin Guide. They don't serve up organic medaillions in mango jus, neither do you need to book a table three weeks in advance. No, the finest dining establishments in London are listed in a book called Classic Cafes. They serve up fried stuff with chips, and anyone can slouch down in a formica booth without an appointment. These very special eateries are survivors of a pre-Starbucks age, back when muffins were toasted rather than shrink-wrapped, and when a great cup of coffee came with sugarcubes, not cinnamon sprinklings. But later this month one of the capital's most famous Fifties cafes is closing down, snuffed out by rising rents and creeping redevelopment. It's a damned shame (even if most Londoners never even realised it existed). So, last Friday, BestMate and I sneaked along for one last supper.
The New Piccadilly cafe/restaurant can be found at number 8 Denman Street, just round the back of Piccadilly Circus. It has a bright and colourful frontage, especially if the red neon sign is switched on and the word EATS is illuminated in large friendly letters for all to see. In the right-hand window those "eats" are fully catalogued on a faded orange menu, for your delectation and delight. Apart from the effects of decimalisation and inflation the list of trademark Anglo-Italian dishes has barely changed since the 50s (bar a few replacement platters such as CHICKEN CURRY AND RICE handwritten on white stickers). There are certain meals listed here that you'll not find anywhere else - for example ESCALOPE PICCADILLY GARNI - as well as strange but marvellous concoctions such as STEAK, CHIPS AND SPAGHETTI. Step inside and you can sample the lot.
BestMate and I arrived at half past five expecting queues, but there were none. We headed for a booth halfway down the restaurant, opposite the "ching ching" cash register, beneath a deep red lampshade and a "happy retirement" greetings card. Our vintage beverages arrived promptly, his a sparkling Coke in a dimpled tumbler, mine a cup of perfect orange-brown tea. For my main course I selected one of the house specialities, DAN'S COW PIE AND TWO VEGETABLES, although this divine gravy-soaked pastry concoction has had to be restickered STEAK PIE to fit in with the Trade Descriptions Act. As for the two veg, there's none of your poncey courgettes and broccoli florets here, oh no, we're talking yellowy boiled potatoes and a pile of proper green peas. BestMate's plate was half CHIPS, which is never a hardship, along with a dollop of fried EGG and a thin slice of STEAK. Nothing even approximating haute cuisine, but perfect comfort food all the same.
Lorenzo, the cafe's owner, was holding court behind the counter. Every now and then he broke off from his conversation to pull another coffee from the vintage pink espresso machine, then returned to the till to survey his fast fading empire. Two white-jacketed waiters dashed around between the tables, increasingly busy as the evening wore on and further diners arrived. It was easy to tell who were genuine regular customers and who were one-off new-media opportunists. The latter all had cameras with them and were busily snapping souvenir photographs of the cafe's finer interior features. I was one of the latter group, alas, but I tried to keep my image retention to an unobtrusive minimum. "OK, I've taken a photo of the wall of postcards and the pile of plastic lemons and the security notice about gentlemen's hats. Hang on, let me just try one more shot of the big horseshoe menu at the rear of the restaurant, this one might not come out blurred."
After clearing our plates, the dessert selection proved irresistable. But which of the six sponge puddings pictured on the back of the menu to choose? Chocolate maybe, or ginger and lemon? In the end BestMate plumped for the TREACLE SPONGE and I chose a very traditional SPOTTED DICK, both liberally flooded in a two-inch deep ocean of skin-topped custard. It's hard to imagine a less healthy pudding, but man cannot live by probiotic yoghurt alone.
Before we left I took the opportunity to visit the prehistoric toilet out the back (which won't be missed when the place closes), and then returned to pay Lorenzo the bill, plus discretionary tip, plus compliments. I'll not be coming back. The cafe closes for good tomorrow evening (or, if the conversation BestMate overheard while I was in the loo is true, on the following Sunday, September 30th). And then in October the place will be gutted (as will its clientele) and Lorenzo will head off for a well-deserved retirement. I hate to think what nasty irrelevant development will replace the New Piccadilly, but if they don't serve cow pie and spotted dick I'm not interested.