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? Today, we step through the fairy light-framed doors of Maison Bertaux, a 146-year-old pastry shop and cafe in London's Soho neighborhood.
Just off Shaftesbury Avenue in London's Soho is a cake shop—a patisserie that wouldn't look amiss in an arthouse movie. In the window are shelves and shelves of beautiful-looking cakes and pastries, displayed on trays on doilies. Peer a little closer and between the delicacies of sugary French dainties you can see soft-colored baby blue walls, mirrors, pretty trinkets … and builders in hi-vis jackets and hard hats drinking pots of tea on their mid-morning break.
If it sounds incongruous, it certainly looks it. Yet this is true Soho, and Maison Bertaux has been at the heart of it since 1871. Builders, actors, artists, tourists—they can all be found licking their lips as they choose what treat they're going to eat with a pot of loose leaf tea or carefully made coffee. The building is old, the stairs narrow, and you can only get into a second room by going out of the shop and back in again through another door.
Maison Bertaux is British eccentricity in shop form, and at the heart of it is Michelle Wade, a former Saturday girl at the shop and owner of the business since the 1980s. She knows the order of all her regulars before they can say it, calling into the back to César to make the drinks and sending people running to plate up croissants, strawberry tarts, or almond slices.
"The shop was opened by the Bertaux family, who were Communards who fled from France," Wade recounts. "There were around 30,000 immigrants in this part of London around that time. The Bertaux lived upstairs and baked downstairs and that's how it started."
The old oven is still in the shop's old basement kitchen, built into the ground under Greek Street.
"We only started making everything upstairs in 1948," she adds.
When Wade says "we," she doesn't mean herself (she wasn't even alive in 1948), but those who have kept Maison Bertaux open through two World Wars and made it the Soho fixture it is today: the Bertaux family, the Vignaut family, and for the last 30 years or so, Wade herself.
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"I was looking for a Saturday job when I was about 14," she says. "I got to know the lady who owned the shop and she gave me a job."
Wade went on to study at RADA, the drama school, occasionally helping out with a bit of waitressing, until one day Madame Vignaut broke the news that she was going to sell the business.
"I told her I wanted to buy it and she told me not to be ridiculous. But in those days, you could borrow loads of money, not like now when you can't even borrow 5p from the bank, so I borrowed the money and bought the shop," she explains.
From her first days waitressing in the early 1970s, Wade had fallen for Maison Bertaux.
"I loved it so much. In those days, all the shelves were bare, but I was mad about the place. I liked the way you're always interacting with people and how you can really make someone's day."
Over a pot of tea and a pastry, Wade leans in to tell me stories of regulars in a lowered voice conspiratorially, and at the same time keeps one eye on all her customers, greeting every one of them, taking orders, and making sure they're served swiftly and with personal attention. At first glance, it appears a little chaotic, but rather than being a well-oiled machine of barista-led efficiency, service at Maison Bertaux is more organic. Wait staff shimmy through the tight space like dancers, and Wade the ballet director.
It's the antithesis of the third wave coffee shops you can find now on most streets in this part of the city. There's no Scandi aesthetic or plug sockets or long tables for co-working at Maison Bertaux, but Wade's standards of food and drink are just as high, if not higher. All croissants and cakes are made fresh throughout the day on site in two small kitchens upstairs known as the "pastry floor" and the "cream floor."
"The ingredients matter and the food is fresh everyday. Quality matters," she says. "When I was a girl, we used tinned fruit but now everything's fresh."
Fruit isn't the only thing to have changed at Maison Bertaux.
"When I was very young, the shop would close at 5.30 PM," Wade remembers. "The pubs were closed in the afternoons and people would come here while they waited for them to open. But now the rhythm of the day has changed and the working day stretches later. People used to flock into town to socialise, but now there are cafes everywhere and people go to their local coffee shop, which makes it much more competitive."
And yet, Maison Bertaux is still busy, with all kinds of people at all times of day. How do they do it? I ask.
"You have to be artful and not panic," she replies. "We've had lots of ups and downs and I've always lived a little on the edge, but I'd rather the shop was here, than that I had lots of money at home. The rates are really bad, but our rent is OK. Maybe it won't be forever, but the thing is, landlords realise that a place like this are what make an area interesting. Which makes other people want to rent space here. We're a little gem really."
Retaining that rustic charm can be a tightrope act, though.
"The danger is, because we haven't lots of money to refurbish, if it gets too tatty and dirty it stops being a one-off place and becomes a fuddy duddy cafe," says Wade. "Everything is old, but it's all clean, and one of my regulars comes every day and we refresh a bit of the paintwork."
You can see this in evidence on Maison Bertaux's first floor, where hand-scribbled graffiti art by comedian Noel Fielding—one of the shop's regulars—has been carefully painted around, while the surrounding walls receive fresh paint. He's not the only regular—chefs from restaurants like Quo Vadis, St. John, and The Ivy all pay court to the shop.
"I'm always asking them for their ideas on how we can improve things," says Wade. "They always tell me to leave it as is."
"This is where I'm happiest," says Wade.
And you can almost feel her joy in the walls, which I'd say is the real secret to Maison Bertaux's long-lived success.