Gay Hussar restaurant ditches old-time spicy gossip for modern Soho vibe

Gay Hussar restaurant ditches old-time spicy gossip for modern Soho vibe thumbnail

Goulash is once again on the menu, but this time rubbing shoulders with fine French and English-style cooking rather than meat-heavy Hungarian classics – and paired with some of the world’s finest wines.

More than two years since the legendary Gay Hussar in London closed its doors, a new restaurant is opening on the site on 18 Septemberunder new owners and with a bold, contemporary style that is more than just a nod to its predecessor’s illustrious past.

In its heyday the Hungarian restaurant in the centre of Soho was a hotbed of political plotting, backstabbing, deal-making and gossip, when its fame rested not so much on the quality of its menu – barely changed in years – but on its reputation as the beating heart of political gossip.

Since opening in 1953, the jewel-coloured rooms adorned with thick draped velvet curtains have played host to generations of politicians, many from the left, including Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot, Tom Driberg, Ian Mikardo and Barbara Castle. It is rumoured to be where the Tory “wets” plotted the overthrow of Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s.

It has also been a popular watering hole for writers and artists. Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams had a regular table on the first floor, where he would bellow out whispered titbits from his informants.

A combination of spiralling overheads, including business rates and rent, and a slump in lunchtime bookings – with politicians and journalists no longer prepared to trek over from Westminster for lengthy alcohol-fuelled lunches – had sounded the death knell for the eccentric establishment after 65 years.

The new venture is the second restaurant from Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew, the duo behind the award-winning Noble Rot wine bar in Bloomsbury’s Lamb’s Conduit Street, the trendy foodie magazine of the same name and Keeling Andrew & Co wine importers.

During a whistlestop, pre-opening tour of Noble Rot Soho, Keeling – a former managing director of Island Records and head of A&R at Parlophone Records – joked that the project “feels a bit like doing a difficult second album.”

“It’s exciting but nerve-racking. We wanted to reflect what we think is best about Noble Rot while acknowledging the rich and interesting past of the Georgian building in Greek Street,” he says, dodging builders dealing with last-minute snagging and staff unpacking boxes of glasses and setting up new tablet stands. “It is steeped in history – you can feel it everywhere. We wanted the feel of a cosy, informal wine bar, but top quality. Obviously these are challenging times in which to open a new restaurant, but good food and drink do cheer us up and have been a salvation during lockdown.”

In the ground floor dining room the well-worn carpet has been removed to reveal dark-stained floorboards, while colourful modern artwork from the pages of the Noble Rot magazine by the likes of Canadian artist Ben Tardif are a pop of vibrant colour on the wood-panelled walls, now painted racing green.

The original built-in benches along each side where politicians from all political parties once sat to gossip have been reupholstered with leather, and the brass lighting and mirrors restored. The shelves which groaned with political tomes are now laden with cookery books including Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire and guides to the world’s finest wines.

The first-floor dining room is being renamed The Rowson Suite to honour the role of political cartoonist Martin Rowson as an enthusiastic supporter of the Gay Hussar and an acerbic and irreverent chronicler of the changing face of Soho and political scenes.

His famous gallery of 60-plus cartoons of the political elite’s great and not-so-good – officially “on loan” – were hung wall-to-wall in the downstairs dining room for many years, but have been languishing in storage since the restaurant’s closure in June 2018.

Rowson, who retains copyright, and previous owner Corus Hotels are understood to have recently agreed to donate the collection to the National Portrait Gallery as an “absolute gift”.

The new restaurant will instead display two dramatic new “triptych” paintings by Rowson. On one side Gay Hussar stalwarts Labour leader Michael Foot and Barbara Castle are pictured leaving the restaurant, while in the modern-day version chefs including Angela Hartnett and Nigella Lawson are shown on Greek Street alongside Amy Winehouse and, bizarrely, journalist Rod Liddle in drag.

Writing about the restaurant’s new incarnation in a recent issue of Noble Rot magazine, Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore said: “I hope the scandals and plotting and affairs and inappropriate behaviour that characterised the old Gay Hussar will continue. To reconcile the left with pleasure – now, that’s the revolution…”