It was with great sadness I heard that Patisserie Valerie was going into administration and many closing down, including the iconic ‘original’ in Old Compton Street. In fact it wasn’t actually the original, which was opened in Frith Street in 1926 by Madame Valerie, a Belgian woman. When the cafe was bombed in World War II, it reopened in Old Compton Street, just round the corner. And, for a long time, this was the only Patisserie Valerie. Thus it was a haunt of Londoners looking for a perfect croissant and to be transported briefly to Continental Europe at a time when this was truly unique and special.
It was a haunt in my childhood. My first two years of life were spent living in a pub in the Charing Cross Road, which was run by my parents. I don’t remember it, but I was taken into Patisserie Valerie often. We then moved out of central London but remained close enough to have Saturday morning trips into Soho where we’d have morning coffee in, sometimes Madame Bertaux, and sometimes Patisserie Valerie.
I can remember the steep winding, narrow staircase we climbed to go upstairs at Madame Bertaux where, after choosing a glorious cake or pastry from the window, we’d find a table and wait for our treat to be served. In Patisserie Valerie one of the things I loved was the rich wood-panelled and furnished room, that felt like entering another, exotic country, where baskets of fresh croissants waited enticingly on tables. You could sit down and take one even before an order was given, and at the end, you owned up to how many you’d eaten. And no one questioned your honesty.
Afterwards, my father and I would go off to the Italian delis and buy breads and cheeses that were mostly unknown in those days – creamy, oozing Gorgonzola, smelling slightly high in its ripeness; the kind of Italian bread you’d never find in a supermarket.
When three Italian brothers bought Patisserie Valerie in 1987, they expanded it to nine outlets. But in a sense, it still remained ‘independent’. By now I was married with kids of my own and we took to meeting my parents on Saturday mornings at the Knightsbridge branch of Patisserie Valerie. For many years it was a favourite haunt; sometimes I’d go on my own for lunch if I was in the area. They continued to put the baskets of fresh croissants on the table in the morning, trusting in their clients’ honesty; it was still a special place to go and still spoke of authenticity.
Then all changed in 2006 when the patisserie was bought out by Risk Capital Partners, who owned such outlets as Pizza Express, Giraffe and Strada. Patisserie Valerie started popping up everywhere. And it was no longer special.
There’s an argument that says, Isn’t everyone entitled to enjoy a special cafe like Patisserie Valerie? But I think the expansion we see today isn’t governed by any philanthropic impetus, but rather the desire to cash in on something which is successful but small and therefore vulnerable.
We see it all the time. I never got to Franco Manca when they were a little independent set-up in Brixton market and everyone was raving about their incredible and authentic Neopolitan pizzas and rushing out to SW2. It was all too much for the greedy big guys. In they came (more specifically The Fulham Shore), bought Franco Manca out and now there are over 40 outlets. I’ve had good pizzas at Franco Manca (some recorded on this blog) but I’ve also had bad ones; even at the same restaurant where one week it’s been great, the next week terrible. Usually it’s because the dough is too flabby, meaning it hasn’t been proved for long enough; something that doesn’t happen when a well-trained and experienced pizzaiolo is in charge. Consistency is so often what goes first when restaurants expand and that special place you loved is no longer special.
Carluccio’s Caffe was great when it opened, then it was sold and went badly ‘off’, so they brought the man himself back and things improved again … until the great chef died and now Carluccio’s isn’t quite what it used to be. Same with The Ivy. That great institution, famous since 1917 and the haunt of celebrities. Then it was bought by an big-name entrepreneur in 2005 and a lot of Ivy cafes were rolled out to hitch a ride on the back of the old distinguished name. Plush and green-themed like the original, but basically just a ruse to get people to hand over lots of money for (in my experience) sub-standard service and food. I do not like Ivy cafes. They’ve become a bit like ‘Brexit’ – my friends are either strongly for or strongly against them; there is no middle way.
So now to the independents; the truly special. Sadly hit hard by egregious business rates that are putting small restaurants, shops and cafes out of business or leave them struggling to survive. Fortunately for me, living in Twickenham, there are still many left. It’s one of the reasons I love living here. Nearby and posher Richmond is lovely but as for eating it’s almost all chains – Côte, Carluccio’s, Five Guys, Byron, The Ivy Cafe … Whereas stay in Twickenham, especially pretty Church Street, and you’ll find places like Masaniello, where Livio’s pizzas are of a reliably consistent quality – and he comes from Naples and knows his stuff – or you can enjoy his wonderful pasta dishes, or fabulous fish stew. Then down the road there’s Corto Italian Deli where Romina stocks the best quality Italian food, cooks a few hot dishes each day to offer alongside wonderful ciabatta sandwiches or, as you watch her, will freshly cut glorious slices of the best salamis and Italian hams to serve straight on to a platter. There’s Ruben’s Bakehouse in the high street with its artisan breads and excellent pizzas. We also have one of the few and best fishmongers in SW London – Sandy’s. In Whitton, where my son lives, and still part of Twickenham, you’ll find Your Bakery where fabulous artisan bread is made and gorgeous pastries and cakes.
What’s great about the independents is not just a consistency of standard but the personal touch. You get to know the owners and staff and they get to know you – it becomes a bit like family. In Your Bakery my little grandson has learnt to say Ciao to Stefano, the Italian co-owner and baker, when he comes out of the kitchen at the back; if I go into Corto on my own, they’ll ask me how the family are; in Masaniello the welcome is warm and Livio, if he’s in the kitchen, which he often is (but he also has 2 other restaurants), will come out and say hello to customers at some time in the evening. It all breeds a wonderful sense of community; a feeling of belonging.
In the independents, the owner is there; they’re overseeing things, and it’s not just about the standard of what they’re serving but making sure everything is running smoothly and people are happy. Livio may have 2 other restaurants but he’s in the kitchen cooking in all of them regularly and this ensures the consistently high standard.
Our high streets are increasingly becoming bereft of essential shops where you can buy clothes, things for the home; basic common needs. And finding somewhere good to eat or even just have a coffee, is becoming a challenge too. Chains aren’t all bad and indeed, at times, useful; but can you name a brilliant one? There’s a kind of anodyne sameness that fails to excite the senses. When you go into a Costa Coffee, or a Carluccio’s, or even an Ivy Cafe, you could be anywhere – you just know what chain you’re in. When you go into the little independents, the best of them sparkle and excite with their difference, their uniqueness and the fact that you know exactly where you are. And you’re delighted to be there!