Brexit is chasing away the snake-hipped Frenchmen from a favourite restaurant
London Letter: Two of the waiters were sharing a room in a flat, each paying £650 a month
One restaurant in the West End was so desperate, a waiter said, that they had taken on English staff. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters
It was one of those in-between hours in the late afternoon and my favourite restaurant in Chelsea was more deserted than usual but as unwelcoming as ever. The dark, cold interior still had its faint smell of raw vegetables as the skinny, sour-faced maître d’hôtel glanced upwards and waved a crooked finger towards the farthest table he could see.
The best restaurant, the gourmands say, is the one you go to most often, but each time I’m back I think there has to be somewhere better than this. Everything good is always good – the aorta-stopping quiche au fromage, the Toulouse sausages and the tarte tatin – and everything bad (a bigger category) is reliably awful.
The terrible fascination of the place lies in its staff, a parade of snake-hipped Frenchmen, each of whom embodies a national archetype. You may receive the menu from a strange young man with the solemn, Merovingian features of Clovis II, the bread basket from Jean Genet during his criminal years, and your main course from the young Alain Delon (a favourite among some of the older gentlemen).
Their English is negligible but any attempt at French is met with a blank look and their table-side manner is just on the right side of contempt and the wrong side of indifference. The mercury drops further with the arrival of the sommelier, an extraordinary-looking person with the walk of a leopard and the head of a serpent. He receives your selection with something like pity, fixing you with his cold, narrow eyes as he whips out his corkscrew like a flick-knife, grips the bottle by the neck and slices the foil around it with an obscene relish.
A few minutes after I was settled in my gloomy corner, the maître d’ was at the table offering bread and water and looking down at what I was reading.
“New book?” he said.
It was as if he had asked me to marry him. For two years, he had ignored me, withholding the smallest hint that he had ever seen me before. Now here he was, making the first move.
I babbled, boasting that it was an advance copy of a new novel by a celebrated writer. Did he know him? No. Heard of any of the earlier books? No, sorry.
Just as he started telling me that he had no time to read, I realised that the reason he was talking to me was because he had literally nobody else to talk to. Not only were there no other customers, there were no waiters.
“They’ve all gone,” he said.
“There are two left and they’re leaving next month. We’ve tried everything, all the agencies, letting them work weekends only, everything. But there’s nobody.”
They were leaving because of Brexit or its consequences, especially the fall in the value of sterling, which devalued their savings, and the rise in prices. As their friends moved elsewhere in Europe, where pay and conditions are good but rents are low, those who remained asked themselves if it was worth it. Two of the waiters who were sharing a room in a flat, each paying £650 a month, had decided to move to Berlin.
Pointing to a shop across the street that was closed for refurbishment, the maître d’ rattled off the names of restaurants that had closed for August.
“They say they’re closed for refurbishment but there’s no work going on. Everybody was on a forced holiday so they don’t take leave in September and October when it’s busier,” he said.
One restaurant in the West End was so desperate, he said, that they had taken on English staff.
“They’re taking the piss but they won’t get rid of them because they won’t find anyone else,” he said.
The British Hospitality Association said this week that 75 per cent of waiters and 25 per cent of chefs in Britain were EU nationals and that some restaurants in London depend entirely on EU labour. The association warned that severe restrictions after Brexit on unskilled EU workers proposed in a leaked Home Office document would be catastrophic for the industry.
“What if the rest of us leave? What happens then? There are 27 other countries, you know,” the maître d’ said as he moved away.
A little later, Alain Delon and the serpent-headed sommelier appeared, all smiles and as full of chat as the language allowed, their bags packed for somewhere that has to welcome them.