Brecher partner Nicky Richmond goes back in time with a visit to Spaghetti House and find you get what you pay for
It must have been 20 years since I’d been to a Spaghetti House. The one on Duke Street was my regular hangout, in the days when I was a lowly articled clerk. Pre-fax, pre-email, we still had carbon copies. For those of you who are not ancient, that’s what cc actually means.
As my firm outgrew its original building, I was moved with other undesirables to an annexe, a glorious but tired building at 74 Brook Street, but I wasn’t happy with my room and when another lawyer left under a cloud (alcoholic, absent) I quietly moved myself upstairs into his room.
It had two chandeliers and a balcony overlooking the gardens. I was a property lawyer and knew all about squatters’ rights. Given that I was a lowly assistant, no one of importance came to my room, so I knew I was safe. A quiet word with switchboard (chocolate changed hands) and it was done.
And downstairs, also banished to legal Outer Mongolia sat M, a seasoned lawyer who loved the law and hated his clients. Why would you want to be a bloody lawyer, he would ask, when I walked into his room with yet another stupid question. Sarcastic and sardonic, we got on like a house on fire.
M and I used to escape to the Spaghetti House at least once a week. I always had the same thing. Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino. Spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chilli peppers. I remember the detritus under the spaghetti, mopped up with bread. And Grissini. We’re talking late 1980s. I wasn’t particularly sophisticated in my food tastes, but I did know the difference, even then.
I used to save up to go to Justin de Blank, down the road, where I’d agonize over whether or not to have one of their wondrous desserts. I always did, obviously. Unless I was with Thin Sharon when I had to feign restraint.
So when my partners B and L were having the where shall we get a quick bite to eat discussion last week, I remembered walking past this branch of Spag House, tucked away on Bryanston Street. Normally, we’d go to the local greasy spoon, but having that same morning witnessed one of the staff fishing out mouldy bits of strawberry from the plastic pots of fruit salad, with their fingers, before replacing the lid, I wasn’t so keen to go.
I am surrounded at work by Ask, Prezzo and the like. Don’t make me, I say. Let’s try Spaghetti House, I say, I have fond memories. Both B and L are happy to oblige. B recalls that she used to come here with her ex-husband. She does not have fond memories.
I did not know, until now, that this is a family-owned chain of restaurants. This is not, apparently, some marketing nonsense dreamt up by a PR Agency. And the menu will not surprise you at all.
We could have chosen the £7.95 set lunch for one course and a drink, or £9.95 for two courses, but we didn’t notice that until we had left the restaurant and there it was, staring us in the face, on a billboard. But no matter. Clearly we were going to have courgette crack, zucchini fritti.
We asked for two portions but I suspect the waiter used his judgement and only brought the one. Other than needing a smidgeon of salt, they were perfect. Smidgeon. An underused word in my life.
And then we all had a mountain of pasta. Obviously I had to order my chilli and garlic dish, that madeleine of memory. But you can never go back. The spaghetti was fine, but the garlic wasn’t “slow-roasted” as advertised; it was simply blanched and sliced. Not enough chilli either, but it was adequate, for the price. B’s Pesto came from a jar, but it wasn’t the worst I’ve tasted. My favourite was L’s spaghetti with meatballs. A perfect dish, should you be needing the energy to plough a field, rather than sit at your desk and plough through a lease. Neither small nor delicate.
We ended with a perfectly serviceable Tiramisu. Not particularly alcoholic and a bit heavy on the cream but I’ve had worse. And the coffee was fine too.
Sometimes, you just can’t get to Soho and want something cheap and cheerful with competent service. Something reliable, in a place that is unchallenging and familiar. I like the fact that it’s a family business. I like the fact they don’t automatically add service unless you’re a group of 5 or more and then it’s only 10%.
I’m really not that far from my original Spag House, at Duke Street. I may pick up the phone to long-retired M, no longer a bloody lawyer and suggest a trip down memory lane. I’d like to hear what life is like on the outside.
Scores on the doors
Value for money 9/10
Best for: Lunch with colleagues or ungenerous clients
Worst for: Fresh pesto