London's Soho Waiters Race is a tradition that dates back to the 1950s. Old photos and video footage from the time show staff from restaurants and bars in the area dressed in their starched whites, zooming past Soho Square and Greek Street, all competing to win the coveted Waiters Cup.
Sixty years on and the dress code for participants is slightly more casual, with many wearing trainers and t-shirts. But the rules remains the same: competing waitstaff must run in what they wear to work—even if this no longer involves starched collars or tailcoats. They must also hold a tray, a napkin, half a bottle of fizz (Prosecco—it used to be Champagne), and a glass, and try not to drop them as they complete the race.
"They have to hold the tray with one hand. They can steady it with their other hand, but not for more than three paces," explains Clare Lynch of The Soho Society, the community organisation staging the race as part of the annual Soho Fete.
Volunteer stewards from the Society line up along the course to ensure a fair race and flag any misdemeanours. The winner is the first waiter to cross the finish line with all their items intact.
"We try to build a community and the waiters are part of the community," race steward and Soho resident Tim Baros tells me. "We want to build relationships between people who work here, and people who live here."
Soho has been a hub of French cooking since the 19th century, with restaurants like L'Escargot (then called Le Bienvenue) rearing snails in their cellars on Greek Street. It's likely then, that the original Soho Waiters Race was inspired by the Course de Garcons de Café, an event first organised in Paris in the early 1900s and taking place on Bastille Day, which falls on 14 July. Echoing this, the Soho Waiters Race usually happens in mid-July.
The Course de Garcons de Café was launched to recognise the waiting profession but the Soho Waiters Race is as much about local community. The Soho Society describes it as a way to "acknowledge Soho as the London home of so much good food in the middle of a neighbourhood party."
As I wait for the race to begin, I ask Baros about his stewarding duties.
"A lot of people are out drinking in Soho today because it's summer and the sun's out," he tells me. "I have to make sure they're not on the road so the waiters get as much space as they need. They're running round with a tray and if they drop anything, they're out of the race."
The race begins at the iconic French House on Dean Street, where up to two entrants from each local bar or restaurant gather outside with their trays. The establishments pay £20 to enter and this year's competitors include non-profit members club The House of St. Barnabas and the family-run Mediterranean Café, which has been open since 1987. Entry fees go towards to the Waiters Benevolent Fund, set up by The Soho Society to provide a safety net for financially vulnerable waiting staff.
From the French House, the race continues down Dean Street, turns onto Soho Square, and covers Greek Street and Old Compton Street before finishing in front of Gerry's Wines & Spirits.
And so the race begins. I watch as the competing waiters and waitresses, each with a bib bearing their name and establishment pinned to their chests, teeter with their trays down the usually packed streets, concentrating hard not to drop anything. Afterwards, I catch Ben, a waiter from nearby Bill's, who was running the race for the first time today. He thinks he came sixth but we have to wait for the official announcement to find out.
"All the people before me dropped their crap, so I could've come first for all I know," Ben says.
His colleague Yani chips in: "I don't break nothing, that's what's important to me!"
We make our way to the garden of St. Anne's Church, where the rest of the Soho Fete activities are taking place. I meet another competing waiter, George. Originally from Greece, he works at the Mediterranean Café. Did he receive any advice before the race, I wonder?
"Only my boss," says George. "He said, 'Run, my friend, just run!'"
Charlie, another waiter, has been at Dean Street Townhouse for two and a half years and this is his second time running the race.
"I consider myself pretty good—I did it last year on a sprained ankle and I came fifth," he says.
Luca from Bar Termini on Old Compton Street also thinks he could be in with a chance. He tells me he received one piece of advice before competing: "Run fast."
Finally, the winners are announced, with Luca coming a respectable second.
"Hopefully I'm still going to have a job tomorrow," he jokes.
The work clothes of today's waiters may be different but their spirit is still very much that of old Soho. And long may it stay that way.