Wine Bar Nostalgia

Not Le Beaujolais … somewhere in London, probably 1960s and definitely chilly, Evening Standard archives.

Just off the Charing Cross Rd., on Litchfield St., is Le Beaujolais: a friendly, uber-French wine bar that has been here since 1972 – an aeon in catering terms. The 1970s and 80s were, of course, the great age of the wine bar, those civilized venues that allowed business types to get shitfaced in a drinking environment that flattered their sense of status more than any mere pub could manage. At the much missed Le Tartin (more on that below) I remember two suits so drunk on Muscadet and workplace hilarity that one of them laughed himself off his bar stool with a full- throated executive guffaw. After being solicitously helped to his feet by the ever-deadpan barman Bernard, he resumed his seat and continued his anecdote with nerveless determination: ‘Anyway …’

In that everyday world that now feels so remote, Le Beaujolais was the best place to have a leisurely lunch that extended into tea-time and beyond, hanging on to your table as the bar gradually filled and grew raucous around you. By that time you would probably have to hang on to your table in order to stand; so, if you ever get a chance to try this, the important thing is to have a substantial meal, not some evanescent platter of cold meats that merely gives the illusion of solid food. This is vital. And, as the pace is set by the drinker with the fastest pouring arm, choice of company is key if you are to avoid disaster. But, seeing as most of my friends are happy to help me steal an afternoon, I have experienced many afternoons that slid effortlessly into purple evening: ‘Like putting your liver on a pole at the bottom of the garden and throwing darts at it’. (A phrase coined by an old family friend.)

One example from a few years ago: man-about-town Miles R. joined me in Le Beaujolais for a light lunch scheduled between appointments. Somehow, these appointments were duly forgotten (I reassure myself that they can’t have been too important, although I cannot in truth remember whether they were or not) as we melted our credit cards in pursuit of some sort of higher fellowship in booze. Sometime around six we were joined by our friend and colleague Tom H. – who was visibly alarmed by our condition – at which point I remembered that I had promised to escort an expectant stranger to a singles party. As I was too drunk to meet the girl myself, Tom kindly met her at the appointed street corner and brought her to me at Le Beaujolais, whereupon she wondered what sort of evening she had signed up for. My memory gets a bit hazy after that, although she was smart enough to slip any attachment to me as soon as we reached the event, leaving me marooned and pissed in a room full of groomed and glossy strangers. I left quietly, struggling my way home to bed and dreams of gorgeous women with fat men. Oh, the humanity.

A view of Rose St. and Garrick St. taken in the early 1980s by Paul Barkshire; the chefs are taking a break from the kitchen of L’Estaminet.

Opposite the Garrick, on the corner of Rose St., there used to be a restaurant called L’Estaminet, which had a terrific wine bar in its basement: Le Tartin. Behind the counter you would find Bernard (bespectacled, austere), Gerard (an endearing shambles) and a revolving quota of gamine waitresses whose function was to smile at the regulars’ jokes and give them dreams of a better life. It was a time-warped oasis in the grinding metropolis, offering a far more intimate experience than any other London bar or club I can think of. I was a regular there for about seven years, until that sad evening when my regular visit revealed the dead hand of new management. Bewildered, I retreated to the nearby Le Beaujolais where I learnt the sorry tale of the departure of Bernard, Gerard et al. The staff of Le Beaujolais were sympathetic to my distress, because they understood what I had become: an exile.

Fortunately, Bernard (I never knew his surname) later ran a spartan but first-rate wine bar in Fitzovia: Manouche. I was a regular here for quite some time, although this particular bar has very mixed memories for me. It is associated in my mind with a particularly fraught relationship which was largely conducted in this bar, given that my beloved’s estranged husband was still living in the family home, and ultimately the affair began and ended here. After a promising beginning, my star began to wane and after a while I could chart my flagging appeal in between trips to the gents. I remember that they had an elaborate cartoon on the wall above the urinal, a coloured pencil drawing portraying in extravagant detail a gathering of early 1980s public figures in some imagined super-bar. That image is burned on to my retina, and is associated with boundless promise and total failure.

Manouche is long gone. Last time I looked, the site was occupied by a branch of the London Cocktail Club. This concern seems to be gobbling up wine bars; they have already annexed The Grapes, that strange, rambling bar beneath the Shaftesbury Theatre (point of departure for a memorable Christmas-time episode that you can read about here). I visited the Grapes in its London Cocktail Club guise a couple of years ago: the bar layout was unchanged but the place purveyed a youthful, slightly gothic vibe. Changing demographics, I suppose. These new bars aren’t suitable venues for dissatisfied middle-aged men to pursue doomed affairs with unavailable women. Then again, in the time of Covid, where are people supposed to go to conduct their inappropriate liaisons? You can’t even meet over a cup of tea, as Trevor and Celia were obliged to do in that awful station café. Can you get all misty-eyed and tragic and Brief Encounter-ish on a Zoom call? Discuss.

Trevor Howard falls in love with Celia Johnson’s hat: ‘Brief Encounter’, directed by David Lean, 1945.

2 thoughts on “Wine Bar Nostalgia”

  1. I remember that evening. Which was surprising given how much we had to drink. On my way home my knees kept buckling beneath me and I came a cropper on Ealing Common and fell flat on my face and received injuries that a make up artist would struggle with. Happy days.

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