Café Boheme is, like the sex shops of Walker's Court and strip joints of Rupert Street, a stalwart of the Soho scene. For twenty years it's stood on the corner of Old Compton and Greek Streets, apparently open all hours, its pavement tables always occupied - one of the hottest spots on a street where people-watching is a competitive sport.
But despite my having haunted the streets of Soho for a similar period - arriving in London from the sticks at around the time Café Boheme opened for business - until recently I'd only ever been past, not in; many's the time I've sipped and supped at Soho House upstairs, but I've always found negotiating the phalanx of drinkers outside Café Boheme itself too like running the gauntlet for comfort and hurried on elsewhere.
When I finally did decide to go in a couple of weeks ago, lured by a new menu defiantly retro in its simplicity and remarkably kind in its pricing, it quickly became apparent why Café Boheme has remained so popular and for so long. The attractive room is classic Soho House (who bought Café Boheme along with the rest of the building when they opened in 1995); design details that will be familiar to anyone who's eaten at sibling sites Dean Street Townhouse and Hoxton Grill are all present and correct. To the uninitiated this means dark red leather on bar stools and banquettes, wood panelling, lots of crystal and a statement zinc-topped bar at the heart of it all.
While sipping an excellent Martini, dinner date Eliot and I shared some eggs mayonnaise - I said the menu was retro - which were great, especially piled onto some good fresh bread. I also ordered moules marinieres which were textbook; the wonderfully sweet, small mussels used resembled clochinas, popular in Valencia but unseen anywhere else, making for a welcome treat.
Main courses were nothing to get over-excited about, but then café food generally isn't and it was none the worse for it. Eliot's grilled chicken salad with tarragon mayonnaise was well-executed, simple stuff; the ratio of leaves to protein was perhaps a bit skewed towards the greenery but it was a generous helping of good-quality poultry nonetheless. My steak - a decent-sized rib eye, served blue and full of flavour if a tad over-salted - came with fantastic frites, hot, crisp and oil-less as they should be.
We skipped desserts in favour of a couple of glasses of Sauternes (as you do); together with a glass of Pinot Noir from the all-French list - which also offer s good choice of 500ml pichets - and service the bill still only worked out at about £35 each. You could eat well here for even less; steak frites start at just £10 for rump (my rib eye was only £16, the selection peaks at £19 for filet), and main courses average £12-£13.
Being a café, bookings aren't taken but given that it's open eighteen hours a day, opening for breakfast at 8.30 and only closing at 2.30am, it should always be possible to drop in and get a seat. With food of this quality, at these prices, in such stylish surroundings, it's easy to see why Café Boheme has been such a lasting success. What's harder to understand is why, with food of this quality, at these prices, in such stylish surroundings, anyone would ever want to eat anywhere else.
Cafe Boheme, 13 Old Compton Street, London W1D 5JQ Tel: 020 7734 0623 http://www.cafeboheme.co.uk
Posted by +Hugh Wright