Quo Vadis is the restaurant in the house where Marx wrote Das Kapital, and today it is full of tulips. I always expect Soho restaurants to house crackheads and refugees from Esquire, their bloody hands echoing the streets that smell equally of dirt and soap, like a man who wants to wash but finds he can’t. I have hated Soho since I saw a man punch his way out of a brothel and a teenage prostitute buy a cuddly toy that was bigger than she was, in a ghastly montage of the free market. I don’t know why people come to Soho, except in novels. I prefer Kew Gardens but I am old now; my Soho moment has passed.
Anyway, Quo Vadis is what I suppose you should call an oasis in these small, neat streets that nonetheless see so much pain or, if you want something slightly less prosaic, vomiting. Because Soho, like Venice, is three parts metaphor to one part pasta joint; the very dirt confuses English writers, and makes them think Soho is more interesting than it really is. So I can give you metaphor — ‘It is like deaaaaath’ — or prose — ‘Oh, look, Pizza Express.’ Quo Vadis is a calm, restful room on Dean Street, much sweeter than the Groucho Club (cokeheads and swirly carpets, even 20 years after Julie Burchill paid her final bill) and slightly less depraved than Black’s, which always seem to be full of swingers lamenting that other swingers are too ugly to swing with. I am here because Jeremy Lee, a much-loved chef, has arrived, to blast away all memory of the years that Damien Hirst and Marco Pierre White owned Quo Vadis; they cooked, painted and, inevitably, fought.
Two things are lovely — the tulips, massed in bowls, and the stained glass windows, which are green and red and make shapes of the faces outside. How strange that Marx’s house, of all the houses in Soho, should have the look of a cathedral. But Soho needs these windows; even for London, the streets are peculiarly ugly, although in the strange, self-hating way of urban myth, this is considered exciting. Like the man from the brothel, visitors seek a little filth before they return to their Twickenhams; to their golf clubs, their private schools, their cold branches of Waitrose. Outside, on the wall, is a stone nose. Apparently there are seven such noses in Soho, cast by a sculptor from his own nose, and if you are too interesting for Westminster Abbey, you can wander round looking for them and then tell your friends you saw the amazing seven noses of Soho.
The menu is a beauty; restaurant retro is still landing in 1726, and giving us pretty font on yellow paper, although A thinks it is pretentious not to have a pound sign next to the prices. (A is a Eurosceptic. Pound signs excite him. He would put them all over Soho and call them art if only he could be bothered. He spent much of last year shouting, ‘I always said the euro would lead to fascism!’ which upsets me, because it is the Melanie Phillips conundrum: if he is right, he is a genius; if he is wrong, he is a bastard.) The daily menu is a bargain at 17.5 for two courses and 20 for three although, when I type it, I can see A’s point; the figure seems meaningless when cut loose from its purpose. There is even a daily cartoon; this one is of people fighting over vegetables. In Soho, metaphor, like the police, is never far away.
The food is excellent and tidily cooked — a dense onglet steak is liverish, with fat chips; ox liver and onions are pleasing, and have a scent cloud of their own. Quo Vadis deserves its reputation, although that the house of Marx should be the most civilised place in Soho makes me laugh into my chips.
Quo Vadis, 26–29 Dean Street, London W1D 3LL, tel: 020 7437 9585.