Freelance writer and journalist based in west London.
Published March 17th 2013
Beer and Bon Vivant
If you'd wandered into The French House in Soho around 70 years ago, you may well have exchanged pleasantries with Charles de Gaulle. It was opened in 1910 as 'The Wine House' by a German named Schmidt. When he was deported at the start of the First World War, enter a chap called Victor Berlemont, the first foreigner to be granted a full English pub licence. He changed its name to the patriotic 'York Minster,' but it became affectionately known as 'The French'.
This could have indeed been because following the fall of France in World War II, de Gaulle fled to London, formed the Free French Forces and is rumoured to have written his speech rallying the French people in this pub. Or it could have started earlier because people assumed Berlemont was from France, when in fact he was Belgian. Either way, there's another tale that it officially became 'The French House' after a fire at York Minster in 1984. It prompted people to leave donations for the rebuilding of the cathedral at the pub. But Berlemont's son, Gaston, who had been born in the upstairs apartment and by this time was the landlord, found out that the cathedral had been receiving deliveries of claret intended for him. It's been 'The French House' ever since.
A mecca for artists, poets, musicians and writers, historically a safe haven for the Soho Fifis, it's counted Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Oliver Reed, Edith Piaf and Guns and Roses among its patrons. It's claimed Robert Plant describes it as his favourite bar in the world.
But what is it about this wonderful old boozer that's seen it earn and continue to earn such affection? It's retained its unique identity. Step inside and you feel you've stepped back in time. The downstairs bar area is cosy; the upstairs bar cosier still. Often you're lucky to get a seat and walking past there's always a crowd spilled onto the pavement outside. There's wood panelling everywhere and no carpet. Almost every inch of the walls are covered with former patrons' memorabilia. There's no music or fruit machines, speaking on your mobile phone is almost frowned upon. You're encouraged to come here to enjoy the range of drinks on offer and have lively conversation with strangers who'll be friends by the end of the night, just like customers before you did. Conviviality and creativity is what it's about.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, 'The French House' serves more Ricard than anywhere else in Britain. It has an extraordinary choice of around 30 wines and champagnes by the glass. As you'd hope from the Gallic roots, the house wine is good. You can't get a pint – don't panic – it's simply stuck its ground and only serves lager in half pint glasses, apart from once on April 1st, when the first pint of the year is drawn and served by Suggs from Madness. It's tradition. His mother was a barmaid here.
Food is available in the upstairs bar but only until 4pm. If you're hungry in the evening, it's crisps and nuts alone. The lunch menu nods to the continent and includes onion and cidre soup with gruyere crouton, a charcuterie plate with olives and cornichons, pork rillettes with toast and sirloin steak and chips. Prices range from £4 to £12. Expect honest fare with no pretence.
Regulars are treated like family, but don't for one second think this pub is for them alone. If you're a newcomer you'll be welcomed equally as warmly and that really is true. 'The French House' is not a pub, it's an institution. It's lively and friendly and a glorious place to spend an evening. Bon vivant is alive and well in this little house in Soho.