Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
A true bastion of old-school London boozing, The French House has been servicing the artists, writers, and actors of Soho for more than 100 years.
Supposedly selling more Ricard than anywhere else in Britain, the pub counts Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas, and Lucian Freud among its former patrons—many of whose portraits hang on its oak-panelled walls. In 1992 Fergus and Margot Henderson founded its dining rooms together, before the former left to open his equally legendary St. John restaurant.
Trading since 1891, the pub has only ever had three landlords. The longest serving—Gaston Berlemont—was born in the pub at the outbreak of World War One and spent his working life there until 1989, when he was succeeded by Lesley Lewis. A long-time Soho resident with a firm idea of what makes a good pub (you're not allowed to use your mobile phone in here), Lesley was a natural successor to continue the leagacy of "the French pub."
We sat down with Lesley to find out how she went from performing cabaret to heading up a bohemian boozer, and why she only serve pints on one day of the year.
MUNCHIES: Hello Lesley. So tell me, how did you initially get involved in the bar trade? Lesley Lewis: I thought I was going to be a famous actress but ended up working in bars—the management side. I was general manager at a place called Coconut Grove. Then the chain closed and they offered me redundancy or a pub in Clerkenwell—and this was well before Clerkenwell was Clerkenwell, if you know what I mean—but I'd never poured a pint in my life by this stage! I'd done cabaret, run strip clubs.
What kind of cabaret did you used to do? In those days, you had to do cabaret to get an Equity card [proof of membership to performing artist trade union Equity]. I did a cabaret act with robotics, essentially, which was very in at the time. I had two snakes as part of the act as well—one was a python. On that show we had a number of acts: Tic and Toc, Barbie Wild, and Steve the Muscle Man. We did tours and things like that.
Impressive. And did running the strip club come after that? I ran a strip club in Old Compton Street from 1979. It was called the Carnival Club (it's now the Lab Bar) but this wasn't a cabaret club, it was a proper strip club. You had a queue outside. It was 50p to get in and you could stay all day—the old men would take their sandwiches with them.
It was run by a Maltese chap but I did costumes and choreography for the girls. I had a flat—a studio—and I thought I was in heaven. They used to do three-minute spots—they'd come on clothed or with bikinis, and then some of them would run up the road to another club. I did that for a few years then that fell apart.
So you ended up at The French House in 1989. I was offered The French House when Gaston retired in 1989. People get confused because we're not all French in here—we're "The French House" for historic reasons. Although Gaston was from Belgium, people always knew it as "the French pub" or "the French house." The French House was a nickname—it was the York Minster dating back to year dot until 1984, when the name was officially changed to The French House. In 101 years, there have only been three landlords here—I'm the third.
Did you know Gaston? He was born in the pub, wasn't he? I knew Gaston, I knew the pub very well, actually. I'd been drinking here for years before I took over.
Gaston's family had taken over the pub in 1914, it was previously owned by a German called Schmidt—nobody knows his first name, he was always just known as "Schmidt"—his wife came back and signed the lease over to the Berlemont family on September 12, 1914. We still celebrate that every year. Gaston spent his whole life at The French House. He was called up for the Second World War and when he came back, his father said "Enough of that: you're behind the bar, I'm off."
Fair enough. The pub is seen by many people as a landmark of Soho bohemia. Have you always felt an affinity with the area? It wasn't always defined as "bohemia," as such. It was just a pub: people came here to relax and be themselves. But of course, we've always had interesting people drink here, being where we are in the heart of Soho. We've had our share of historic moments in here. General De Gaulle wrote his speech in that seat over there, you know—"We may have lost the battle but we haven't lost the war."
We used to have the free French drinking in here during the War, too. I've spoken at length to Gaston's daughter Giselle. She remembered—as a little girl—Errol Flynn and Orson Welles being down in the cellar tasting the wine. In those days, not everywhere had wine. During the war a lot of the wine was from Algeria because the supply lines were disrupted—you couldn't easily get French wines. Also the cellar wasn't cold in those days. It's only been in the last 40 or so years that people have demanded cold drinks. When I took over in '89, there wasn't even an ice machine in The French House.
I've got to ask about the "half pint" rule. How did that come about? There are many stories about the half pint rule. But what I've heard is that in the days of the old, heavy-duty dimple jugs in the 1920's—big, heavy-handled pint glasses—there were these big French sailors outside having a fight, and they were smashing them over each others' heads. Gaston's father said: "Never again will we serve a pint in this pub." And he never did!
Do people ever take offence to the rule? People find it quite amusing, generally. Most people know they can't get a pint in The French House.
But you have "pint day" once a year, right? We've done it for the past 16 years, every year on April 1. We've had a few people pull the first pint over the years—we don't advertise who's doing it but we have a proper auctioneer there who "auctions" them off. This year we had Lorraine Chase and Suggs and Andy MacKay from Roxy Music and a few other people. We raised £2,200 for Macmillan.
A lot of people associate The French House with a cold glass of pastis. Is it true that you sell more here than anywhere in the UK? We do indeed. We sell more Ricard than anywhere else in the UK, we certainly get through a lot of it. Ricard—not so much Pernod, for some reason. Everybody drinks it, it's always been the thing to have in here.
I've heard people describe the atmosphere at The French House as like a "village pub" too. Is that still the case? We cling onto the "village" feel here. At the end of the day, that is what Soho is, really. All the older lot know each other and do the rounds. And while we have a lot of well-known people that drink here, they can just relax—nobody is going to hassle them. We do food, too.
We had Fergus and Margot Henderson cooking here in the early 90s and then we had Polpetto up here for a while a few years back. But the costs of running that kind of restaurant—the amount of chefs that you need to do it—where so prohibitive that we decided to turn the upstairs back into a bar and just serve lunch. We don't do the evening service any more, you couldn't really eat comfortably in here in the evening. We do the classics—steak frites, duck confit, charcuterie.
Soho's dining scene has changed a lot over the past few years. Has this had an impact on the pub? Soho has always been a changing area, but now it's changing rapidly. It's not all bad though. There are a lot of really good people coming in—galleries coming back that had moved out years ago and film businesses coming back, which is also a good sign.
The real downside is the breaking of the community. People who are allowed to build luxury flats that are sold purely for investment, that nobody can afford to live in anyway. That is the kind of thing that is breaking up what was once a glorious village, still hanging on by the skin of its teeth. But I see myself staying here unless Crossrail come and chuck us out.
Soho is very important to me. Always will be.
And long may it stay that way. Thank you for talking with me, Lesley.