Welcome back to The Last Bite, our column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up?
Here, we talk to longstanding bartenders, chefs, market stall holders, and restaurant owners to find out what the future may hold. This installment takes us to Paul Rothe & Son, a fourth-generation deli and cafe in London’s Marylebone.
Stepping foot inside Paul Rothe & Son deli feels like walking into a hyper-organised pantry. Jars of jam, chutney, pickle, and piccalilli line the shelves, each with their label facing uniformly outward. Glass containers filled with Liquorice Allsorts and hard boiled sweets stand in orderly rows and boxes of tea are displayed neatly behind the counter. It’s an OCD kitchen owner’s dream. Except not really, because the floor slopes slightly and the grey leather chairs in the shop’s seating area have been around since the 1950s. Situated on a quiet side road between Baker Street and Bond Street, Paul Rothe & Son might be neat and tidy, but it’s also bursting with history.
On my visit to the deli-stroke-cafe, which has been run by the Rothe family since 1900, I overhear a customer placing his sandwich order in front of the chilled display case of fillings.
“Can you do a banana and bacon sandwich?” he asks. “Or is that a bit weird?”
Owner Paul Rothe doesn’t bat an eyelid. “Of course we can,” he replies. “Nothing’s too weird. If we’ve got the ingredients, you can have it!”
This sums up the kind of establishment Paul Rothe & Son is.
As well as, erm, banana and bacon, Paul Rothe & Son offers handmade sandwiches with classic fillings like salt beef and gammon, alongside German liver sausage and liptauer cheese spread. This European influence stems from Paul’s grandad, who emigrated from Hamburg to London in 1898 and opened the deli shortly afterwards.
“Originally, my grandad worked as a cigar salesman in Hamburg, but that didn’t really work out for him so he decided to up and move to London because back in the day, everyone in Germany said London’s streets were paved in gold,” Paul explains. “When he first got here, he started working at a deli in Soho with a partner, but that didn’t go to plan either because his partner didn’t put in the hours, which led him to open his own place.”
Paul Sr. opened Paul Rothe & Son on 2 August 1900 as a German deli that stocked mainly imported goods, catering to the large German community in Marylebone. He passed away in the early 1930s, and his son, Robert, inherited the business and expanded the shop to include a seating area for customers. Paul joined the family business to work alongside his dad in 1969, before taking over from him when he retired in 1984.
“I remember the early days working with my dad. There was sausage meat hanging everywhere because there was nowhere to fit it all in this tiny shop!” Paul reminisces. “It was hectic at times, but so much fun being together.”
By the 1980s, Marylebone had changed dramatically and the surrounding streets were restricted by yellow lines and parking metres, making it harder for customers to leave their cars as they shopped. Paul took the opportunity to change the range of groceries the deli offered.
“Instead of being a general grocery store, we started to specialise in jams, preserves, and condiments, so people could manage to carry everything on the tube,” he explains. “Our customers come here knowing they can get something they can’t get in the supermarkets, as supermarkets would only carry the bestsellers and we’d stock the full range of unusual flavours.”
Today, the shop’s central location and reasonable prices make it a favourite lunch spot for businessmen and women, tourists, and construction workers, all of whom are drawn by the promise of handmade sandwiches with near limitless filling options and intriguing jarred goods.
“My job is to cook and create the fillings such as salmon, prawn cocktail and smoked mackerel pâté,” Paul explains. “I’m also in charge of our soups, which are very popular too, we always make sure that we have two hot soups on offer because we mainly serve cold foods it just balances our menu out.”
The time has come for me to try one of the deli's signature sandwiches and Rothe insists I go a little off-piste. He starts with rye bread and slathers on a generous portion of egg mayonnaise, topping it with strips of anchovies and a flurry of sandwich leaves. He adds a lid and hands me the sandwich on a plate. I take a large bite, trying not to let any of the filling fall out of the sides. The anchovies give the creamy egg mayo a deliciously salty edge.
“People like to create their own bespoke sandwiches, they know what they like and we try not to change the menu too much because regulars will kick off,” Paul says. “The only problem is the sandwich being too full and it can be a bit difficult to cut as we cut ours into four squares because it lends itself better to wrapping.”
As well as the loyal regulars, Paul Rothe & Son has also hosted more familiar faces. Paul’s son Stephen, who has been working alongside his dad since 1998, recalls a memorable encounter with Madonna and Guy Ritchie.
“It was back in 2000, when they were both still married, I had no idea who this strange, loud blonde woman was at first,” Stephen says. “Madonna called me over to top up her tea and I was in complete shock when I finally realised who it was.”
“There was another incident with our long-term waitress Jackie. She just started working here and was about to take her lunch break when she realised her lunch was missing,” Paul laughs. “She’d left her sandwich and grapefruit on the counter, Anthony Hopkins thought it was his order and was already half-way through eating!”
Despite the occasional celebrity visitor, the Rothes enjoy serving their return customers the most.
“That’s one of the nicest things about working in family-run shop, these people aren’t just customers, you get to know them by name, learn their order, and discover their stories,” Stephen explains. “You have to try and sell yourself as a small business, not because you have to, but because you want to. You create a bond with customers rather than just seeing and serving them.”
He adds: “Growing up was difficult because you’re often left out and you’re doing something different from all your friends. But you realise all the hard work is worth it and opportunities like this don’t come often. I love working here, it’s great to be part of history and we’re very fortunate that we all get along.”
The future of Paul Rothe & Son now lies in Stephen’s hands.
“It’s fourth generation now, but I’d love to be able to carry the legacy on,” Paul says. “It’s most likely that Stephen will take the helm when I’m gone, but after that I’m not sure who’s next in line as he doesn’t have any children right now.”
If my egg anchovy sandwich is anything to go by, I’m sure they’ll have people queuing around the block to help out at this historic little sandwich shop.