The other day, I bought a chocolate-chip cookie from a little boy called Rocco who had set up a stall round the corner, stocked with all sorts of buns, muffins and other home-baked goodies, in order to raise money for SportsAid. “How sweet is that?” I thought, as I handed over my dosh – but when I passed by again a few hours later, I found that Rocco’s little stall had transmogrified into just one of the hundreds of branches of Rocco’s Patisserie, all of which were decorated like a pseudo-French café and were now serving ghastly, industrially produced sugary comestibles at inflated prices.
I have written before in this column about how deranging it is to see chain restaurants or cafés clink-clankingly metastasise across our greenish and bilious land. This week, I want to consider another egregious example: Patisserie Valerie. Once upon a time, if you were something of a Soho flâneur, after you’d picked up a few poppers behind Raymond Revuebar and visited one of the walk-ups (take note, Crispin!), you slaked the thirst your exertions had produced by downing a half-pint at the French House, or going for tea and a pastry at Maison Bertaux or Patisserie Valerie. Neither establishment was particularly good but both had the virtue of being long established and – more importantly – unique.
Maison Bertaux, which is still going, has the further cachet of being the older, having been established in 1871 (possibly by ex-communards fleeing the counter-revolution), but Patisserie Valerie was always more accommodating. It was opened in 1926 on Frith Street by the eponymous Madame Valerie, but moved round the corner to Old Compton Street after the Blitz hit the eclairs and a massive euphemistic explosion ensued. True, in 1987 the café was bought by the aptly named Scalzo brothers (what else are you going to do with a name like that except snaffle up Soho businesses?) but they only managed to open a further eight branches before selling the mini-chain to the man we must perforce call the Führer of mid-price British restaurant dining: Luke Johnson.
OK, OK, I realise that’s a little outré – I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Mr Johnson has any Hitlerish political opinions or personal traits, although the Johnson family (in common, it seems, with other prominent Johnsons) does hang to the right. Nevertheless, even Luke wouldn’t dispute that he is always seeking to expand and find more Feedingsraum; after all, this is the man who took Pizza Express from 12 outlets to 250 in a mere six years; the man who started Strada from scratch (it is now so ubiquitous that there is probably a Strada up your bum, dishing out great, steaming mounds of tagliatelle); and the man who took over Gail’s Artisan Bakery in 2011, since when it has become the synonym for yummy-bourgeois-mummyness.
At least with Johnson’s other enterprises, what you see is pretty much what you get, but Patisserie Valerie, shorn of its belle époque window-dressing, is nothing more than Costa-with-attitude. Yes, yes, the floors are brownish and woody-looking . . . Yes, yes, there’s a decal of the Eiffel Tower stuck to the ceiling . . . Yes, yes, the benighted members of staff have to wear stripy waistcoats . . . And yes, yes, there are signature French café furnishings: bentwood chairs, club ones with oxblood-leatherette seats. But a few bottles of syrup and a handful of macaroons doth not make for café society – or even a café where you would like to socialise.
At the counter, I admired the hat-shaped lampshades dangling overhead (so witty!), then ordered a pot of Earl Grey and a “lovingly handmade Belgian chocolate gluten-free brownie”. The nice serving woman told me to take a bentwood chair and, shortly afterwards, tea and titbit arrived: the former in a heavy china pot (excellent!), the latter in a plastic box (sucks dogs*** – if I wanted a brownie in a box, I’d go to a petrol station). If I had ordered the full afternoon tea, I’d have been presented with a wrought-iron stand holding individual pots of conserves; and that has to be worth a premium price, doesn’t it? Well, no. It takes more than a pot of jam and some dangling bowler hats to conjure up ambience, especially when there’s a harsh, neon, anti-insect lamp on the wall and a garish yellow “CLEANING IN PROGRESS” sign on the floor – easily the brightest thing on the premises.
I’ve no idea how Luke Johnson sees the future of Patisserie Valerie. He has taken the Scalzos’ nine outlets and added a cool 115 more in nine short years. At this rate, he’ll have a millefeuille in every British suburban cul-de-sac by the turn of the next century. And, as with so many other high-flying business types, one wonders: what’s in it for him? Can he get that much satisfaction from stuffing ever more food in our faces? His employees don’t seem to be getting much – the nice woman on the till at one branch told me that, as a manager, she was obliged to do up to ten hours a week of unpaid overtime. As for the ordinary staff: “It’s so quiet at the moment, I sometimes have to send them home.”
Poor bastards. But at least at home you can have a cup of tea for free and one of Rocco’s very reasonably priced and charitable cookies.
This article appears in the 10 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle