I go back and forth between the UK and France all the time but until recently I never noticed how much of a French influence there is in London.
Walking around the area of Charing Cross, through Leicester Square, Covent Garden and Soho, I was struck by how many French style patisseries and restaurants there are. There’s a definitely love affair going on and I was off to have lunch at a place that helped to kick start it, the oldest French restaurant in London.
The famous L’Escargot in Greek Street a short walk from Leicester Square and if you want a touch of real France and fabulous cuisine with a London twist then you can’t do better than this.
The restaurant is located in a most magnificent Georgian town-house built in 1741, the year George Frederic Handel completed writing his grand Messiah. It was originally the country home of the Duke of Portland, as, incredible as it is to believe now, Soho was at that time popular as a hunting area with fields and woods. The area takes its name from the hunting cry of the day – “soohoo”. A comfortable commute to the Royal Palaces of St James’s, Westminster and Whitehall, the wealthy flocked to Soho to build their pastoral getaways.
In 1896 a French restaurant opened in Greek Street called “Le Bienvenue”, run by Monsieur Georges Gaudin – it was the first restaurant in England to serve snails, les escargots, and they went down a storm with the diners. So much so that bigger premises were needed, prompting Gaudin and his staff to move down the road in 1927, to No. 48 Greek Street and the old Duke’s country home.
A sprawling mansion on several floors with lots of rooms, it also had a rather large basement which Gaudin turned into his own in-house snail farm. So besotted were his British clients with the snail dishes that they begged him to call the restaurant after the little beast. He did, it became L’Escargot Bienvenue and eventually just L’Escargot. Entering the restaurant is like stepping back in time, over a snail mosaic threshold through the big, black shiny Georgian door. There’s still an advertising bill board above the restaurant’s Georgian front windows showing Gaudin riding a snail with the motto “SLOW AND SURE”.
Over the years the restaurant has changed hands but it’s been a London constant – one of the best French restaurants in town. I was lucky enough to be able to say hello to owner Brian Clivaz (of Arts Club, Home House and Langan’s Brasserie) and tell him how delicious the dishes are. He popped into the private dining room known as the Salon Vert, typically Georgian, full of drama with a stunning 18th Century ceiling where we were ooh-ing and ah-ing over the snails served on a cocktail stick topped with tiny rounds of garlic bread and the greenest, garlic-iest, lushest sauce. I enlightened him on the other merits of snails, a popular face cream ingredient in France and advised him to never take a photo in a snail farm with your flash on – it sends them crazy and kills them. He confided that with his name being the same as the most famous snail in Britain, Brian from the children’s TV series Magic Roundabout (another French-British affair, in France it was the Le Manège enchanté) it was fate for him to be here in this amazing restaurant.
History oozes from the walls, the customer list past and present reads like a Who’s Who of fame and notoriety. Coco Channel held a party here, Mick Jagger, Sir Elton John, Dame Judi Dench and the aristocracy of British celebrity venture (and adventure) here. But it’s not just for the rich and famous, this is a perfect place to enjoy a great French inspired meal or even afternoon tea in the centre of London in a historic building with a French connection.
I left at a snail’s pace, you will too, it’s one of those places to linger longer and soak up the English/French ambiance…