Can the conservatives save the Gay Hussar, Labour’s canteen?

Date:12-12-2013 08:58:28 read:5

Can the conservatives save the Gay Hussar, Labour’s canteen?

The Hungarian restaurant in Soho frequented for decades by Labour politicians and Left-wingers is up for sale - will its old-fashioned menu survive?

Is it curtains for the Gay Hussar? John Wrobel, the Polish general manager for 25 years, is nervous  Photo: Clara Molden

After evicting Labour from office for the first time since 1979, there was one more humiliation the Conservative Party was determined to inflict. A month after their election victory three years ago, Patrick McLoughlin, then the party’s chief whip, assembled the entire whips’ office and headed to the Gay Hussar.

Their choice of venue could not have been more symbolic. Since it opened in 1953, this cosy Hungarian restaurant on Greek Street in Soho has been known as Labour’s canteen. Through triumphs and defeats, the party’s politicians, as well as socialist writers and artists, have exchanged confidences over the dark wood tables behind the crimson façade. Michael Foot celebrated his 90th birthday here, and Barbara Castle and Roy Hattersley were habitués.

“The Conservatives came here purposefully,” says John Wrobel, the Polish general manager of 25 years. “This was a show of their happiness at being back in power, coming to this bastion of Left-wingers. To voice their approval, they did a lot of stomping. I was worried the ceiling would fall down.”

This week, Mr Wrobel has more serious concerns. After 60 years of trading, the Gay Hussar may have dished up its final cherry soup. It is up for sale for £500,000, and the brochure suggests a new proprietor could “take it in a new direction”. Prospective buyers submitted bids last Thursday, and expect to be told today if they have been successful. The 13 staff are waiting to hear their fate. “There is trepidation,” says Mr Wrobel.

Regular diners are concerned a new owner may not respect the restaurant’s heritage. Two dozen MPs have signed an early day motion, registering “sadness” at the decision to sell “an important national institution”.

More than 140 stalwarts have launched a consortium, the Goulash Co-operative, and submitted a “substantial” bid. The would-be rescuers are spearheaded by Lord Kinnock, the former Labour leader, but the list of donors includes Lord Ashcroft, the Conservatives’ former deputy treasurer, and Neil and Christine Hamilton.

The current owners, Corus Hotels, would not say why they are selling up. Simon Chaplin, a director at Christie & Co, which is handling the sale, says the group is also disposing of its other stand-alone restaurant in the capital, Elena’s L’Etoile. Mr Wrobel has not been given a reason, but says there has been no decline in trade. In fact, at lunchtime last week, the Gay Hussar appeared to be thriving, with all tables taken.

Yet to call the food dated would be akin to branding Michael Foot slightly Left-wing. The staples – goulash, crispy roast duck and stuffed cabbage – have not altered since the Fifties. “The menu has changed,” insists Edwin Passus, 92, who has dined here for half a century. “They changed the typeface once.”

“It is a good deal less Hungarian than any restaurant I have been to in Hungary,” says Brian Sewell, the art critic and a regular diner for the past 40 years. “The quantities of food are considerably smaller, and the quality is non-existent. The clientele is a bunch of elderly people who all went to public school and ate terrible food during the war.”

Even Mr Wrobel does not expect a visit from the Michelin men. “It’s not the food that has made it famous,” he admits. “It is not refined. Sometimes Hungarians don’t recognise the food as their dishes because the recipes have changed in Hungary, whereas here it has been in a time warp.”

Culinary excellence, however, has never been the Hussar’s raison d’etre. Diners who eschew the questionable charms of its smoked goose breast still relish its history. “There is plenty of atmosphere,” says Sewell. “Everybody knows everybody.” Indeed, the restaurant has attracted the great and good ever since Victor Sassie, the son of a Swiss ship joiner, established the place, naming it in honour of the elite of the Hungarian army. In the early days, T S Eliot and Jonathan Cape, the publisher, were regulars.

More recently, Lord Pendry, the Labour peer, claims it was here that he persuaded Tony Blair to run for Parliament over lunch. “He says there should be a plaque over table 10,” says Mr Wrobel. “'Here Tom Pendry helped Tony Blair on his way to greatness.’”

Yet Blair has not eaten here since. “There was a crisis when he became leader because people thought the Gay Hussar was a bit Old Labour,” says Dan Hodges, The Daily Telegraph columnist. “So somebody put in a plea to Peter Mandelson, who made a point of coming to sit at the centre of the restaurant, allowing himself to be photographed. He was saying you could eat there without thinking it would infringe your chances of promotion.” A regular himself, Hodges still feels the pull: “There is such a palpable sense of history.”

If the co-operative triumphs today, says Mr Wrobel, “it would be a great relief”. And what would he serve at the celebration dinner? “It would have to be goulash,” he says, firmly. “There would be no other options. And no vegetarian choice.”

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013