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At Gaby’s Deli

September 18, 2012
by Jenny Linford

It is my pleasure to welcome this report from the West End by Jenny Linford accompanied with photographs by Simon Mooney. The only independent cafe around Leicester Sq, Gaby’s Deli is a London institution where you can dine for as little as five pounds and discover yourself rubbing shoulders with West End stars too. After a threat of closure by the landlord, a popular campaign won a reprieve but now Gaby is on a monthly lease which offers no security. So we thought it an opportune moment to celebrate the wonders of this cherished cafe and Gaby Elyahou himself, the man who brought falafels to London.

For as long as I can remember, Gaby’s Deli on Charing Cross Rd has been part of my London cityscape. Just down from the Wyndham Theatre, it is a familiar West End presence – a modest façade with Gaby’s trademark colourful salads proudly displayed in the window. Since last year, this modest, down-to-earth eaterie has been under threat, with Gaby given notice to quit by his landlords, Gascoyne Holdings.

“I’ve been here since 1964,” explains Gaby, a sprightly, dapper figure, with a shrewd face and wonderfully alert eyes. “It was a salt beef bar before I took it over. I added more dishes, bought an espresso machine, started to concentrate on the salads – we do thirty-seven, all home-made. The people who eat here, they know about salt beef. It’s a meal. You can see how much meat we put in the sandwich. I think it’s the best sandwich in the world. I mean it. What other sandwich can you have so much meat in?”

As we chat, Gaby insists on ordering me a plate of his falafel to sample. It arrives promptly – a generous serving of crisp, freshly-fried falafel on a bed of humous, topped with foul medames, then tahini, sprinkled with parsley, with two warm pitta bread on the side. Truly tasty food. Watching Gaby in action, teasing the old ladies sitting to our left, calling out a friendly greeting to a customer walking by, noticing that a customer needs sugar for his coffee, I realise, however,  it is not simply the good, fresh food and the reasonable prices which bring people back here time and time again. This is a place with a human face to it. Gaby is one of a fast-vanishing breed of proper, old school proprietors – alert, democratic, experienced, proud of his business, relishing the face-to-face contact with all his customers, gloriously nosy and interested in everyone who comes in. As a result, in a world where clonetown franchises dominate, Gaby’s has that rare quality – personality.

“There are too many chains around here now,” says Gaby thoughtfully. “We serve home-made soup, really filling, moussaka, meatballs, goulash. We have a special every day,” he gestures towards the board. “Tell me – in the West End, where else can you sit and eat a meal for six or seven pounds?  I don’t have tablecloths or a waiter with a white starched short, but all the food is freshly made. We get in at 8am – we have to prepare the food.  It’s a lot of work. Eating a sandwich – that’s boring! There are too many sandwich shops. We get a lot of theatre people, always have done, always actors. They want something light before the show, so they have a salad.”

“People come back here. We have customers returning from America, Scandinavia, South Africa, from Timbuktu – they come from all over the world. I just had a customer tell me that his grandparents from South Africa always come here when they’re in London, so they told him to come.”

The announcement that Gaby’s was being closed down saw an extraordinary response from his customers, with their Campaign to Save Gaby’s launched on Facebook quickly attracting thousands of supporters. A series of Falafel Cabarets were launched, with Gaby’s thespian customers, such as the actors Henry Goodman and Simon Callow, generously performing to help spread the word.
Among the Save Gaby’s team is Steve Engelhard, who explains why he joined the campaign. “I’ve known Gaby’s for many years. I think it was my big brother who first alerted me to it. We’re a family with Jewish origins – so salt beef, falafel, salads  are comfort food as far as I’m concerned. Gaby’s is affordable, it’s unpretentious, the quality is high and it’s very individual – there’s none of the blandness which goes with chains. When I heard that Gaby’s was threatened, I thought I’ve seen too many of my favourite places closing. I’m not a campaigner by habit but it pleases me no end that there’s such a community of people willing to make a stand about this. I think it’s a sense of maintaining a personal landscape, a personal identification with something that contributes to the quality of life and to the soul of London. Without individual places like Gaby’s, the West End could easily be as bland as any standard high street.”

The affection in which Gaby’s is held is almost palpable. Gaby’s customers, when they realise that I am writing about the Save Gaby’s campaign, are eager to tell me what Gaby’s means to them. A middle-aged man, who has been sitting together with his wife and young daughter eating a meal at a table next to me, stops unprompted to talk to me. “I first came here in my early twenties, so have been coming here for twenty-five years now. It would be a terrible shame if it went. It’s a disgrace that Westminster Council didn’t protect it. Walk to Leicester Sq – all you see are crappy pizza and pasta restaurants. They should be protecting this – tourists want London proper, not chain London. This is an iconic, one-off restaurant.” An elegantly-dressed, elderly gentleman pauses shyly on his way out to tell me “I’ve been coming here for decades. It’s desperately sad. So much of London is under threat. It seems wrong that someone who’s been here for so long can be kicked out when so many people care about it.”

Gaby himself is touched by the campaign, wryly amused at the fuss his customers are stirring up. “It was all from the customers. People came and said “We’re not going to let you go.” Boris Johnson, Ken Livingston, actors – they all come here to show support. The newspapers, TV they’ve all come here. I know a lot of people. Fifty years here, it’s not three months. I hope they don’t spoil the West End, but I think they will.” He pauses and shrugs expressively. A neatly printed notice sellotaped to the counter behind him reads: ‘Thank you to our customers who set up and signed up to Save Gabys Deli on Facebook. We are very touched by all your support. The management and team at Gaby’s.’

“The only hope,” explains Steve Engelhard from the Save Gaby’s campaign, “is to change the mind of Gascoyne Holdings and its directors, notably Lord Salisbury – because everything else has been tried. Westminster have granted the planning consent. The only remaining hope is to change the minds of the owners. We’ve had huge press coverage. The question is do these people want to minimise the bad publicity they’re getting? Do they want to be clever and get good publicity for doing the right thing in the end and saving a well-loved institution?” If affection and loyalty alone were enough to save Gaby’s deli, then its future would absolutely be assured.

Photographs copyright © Simon Mooney

Gaby’s Deli, 30 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DE

You may like to write direct to Lord Salisbury – The Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, AL9 5NQ

6 Responses leave one →
  1. sara nathan permalink
    September 18, 2012

    What fabulous photos – they so capture the spirit of Gaby’s and make me pine for falafel!

    We hope Gaby’s is safe for a while yet but will let you know if the threat re-appears.

  2. Vicky permalink
    September 18, 2012

    This is dreadful. I’m straight on to Facebook and a letter to his Lordship will be in the post this morning. Perhaps Viscountess Boudica could put in a word.

  3. Teresa Stokes permalink
    September 18, 2012

    I have been going to Gaby’s since the 1970s. He claims that he was the first to sell falafels in London, and his are the very best, so crunchy and garlicky they are quite unlike any other you have tried, I guarantee it. You can buy four for a pound in a paper bag if you want a quick snack to take out, which I frequently do, and this will really fill you up. If his restaurant disappears I shall be heartbroken! Please join the Save Gaby’s Deli page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/save.gabys.deli

  4. guy permalink
    September 18, 2012

    What a wonderful article and such lovely photos as well, they capture the essence of Gaby’s perfectly.

  5. September 18, 2012

    Oh an absolute favourite of mine. Gaby is so welcoming and the falafels divine. Lovely photos :)

  6. October 9, 2012

    I only discoverd Gaby’s about six years ago, and love this deli. Hope it remains for years to come. Really great photos – stumbed across them accidentally, and must visit again soon.
    Best wishes, Becky.

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