1971 was the year that decimal currency was launched, the first Mr Men books were published, one of my favourite TV crushes Damien ‘he’ll always be Soames to me’ Lewis was born and a fresh pound of turkey (apparently!) cost fourty pence. It was also the year that Gaby opened his eponymous deli on Charing Cross road, a few short meters from Leicester Square station, right in the heart of the West End.
Gaby’s Deli must have seen a lot in the forty odd years of it’s existence. The release of the Sex Pistol’s ‘Never mind the Buzzcocks’. Margaret Thatcher as Britians first female PM, the wedding of Charles and Diana, the end of the pound note, Black Monday, The cloning of Dolly the sheep, flares and platforms, top of the pops, and Harry Potter, to name a few.
Last Tuesday it also saw me. Not that I can put myself among the above mentioned events of note (or can I?!) It wasn’t my first visit after all, and I doubt it was the last. The interior of Gaby’s Deli is nothing to write home about. In fact, I often think when I go there that it probably hasn’t changed in the fourty years since it’s opening.
The tables are melamine, and the chairs are plastic. Photos of famous visitors, articles from bygone years and theater flyers adorn the walls. The food is on display in the glass cabinet at the front. It’s definitely not fancy. Which is fine. I don’t need fancy as long as the food is good. It is.
We order the whole baked aubergine with tahini and salad, a salt beef plate and a veggie plate. The outside skin of the aubergine is charred black, but the inside is smokey and melts with the tahina and oil as you eat it. The salt beef plate offers up everything that it says it will, that is, salt beef… and a plate. It’s served sliced and laid out in strips. There is no attempt to pretty things up. No garnish. It’s superfluous, and they know it.
The veggie plate comes with an amalgamation of cauliflower, spinach and chickpeas, tomato and aubergine, green beans, humous and falafel. So many different delicious things, happening all at once, but also complimentary. They belong together. The falafel is perfectly crunchy, and the flavours pop. The combination of it all, with the aubergine and the salt beef feels comfortable to me. Familiar. It’s one of my favourite things.
Half way through our meal a man enters the restaurant. His tropical print shirt is unbuttoned, his chest exposed, and a pair of bright lime sunglasses adorn his face. He holds a guitar. He is wired. Literally. He stands in the middle of the deli. Twaaaang goes the guitar as he violently bangs at the strings. “I’m going to play you all a song” he declares “I’m having a bad day, my girlfriend left me, but I still love her” Twaaaaaang “So, I’m going to play you all a song. I’m gonna play and you’re gonna listen”.
We sit quietly, slightly unsure of what to do as he plays and warbles away. At the next convenient break, the chef sidles up to him. “You’ve played your song, thank you, perhaps you would like to go now?” Twaaaang goes his guitar as he barrels out the door and disappears into the throng. The chef looks down at us and shrugs “It happens sometimes” he says simply, by way of explanation.
In 2011 Gaby’s Deli fought and successfully won an attempt by the landlord (the Marquess of Salisbury) to evict and develop a chain restaurant in it’s place. It was a feat, not just for the deli itself but for the community that banded together to support it. For my part, I hope it continues to exist. A comfort within this changing landscape of uncertainty. A beacon of light for hungry theater goers and wayward warblers.
And a damn delicious spread.