Forty nine years ago, as I was being born in North London, and my dad was buying a teddy bear to give me, which now sits on a shelf in my office, Gabys Deli was serving falafel and salt beef and the best latkas in the country. Twenty five years ago, I would sneak away from my street pitch round the corner at Covent Garden, with the girl who became my wife, and we’d huddle around one of the continually unbalanced tables in the back, surrounded by posters for West End shows, and share a baklava. Seven years ago, when it was under threat of closure, I, alongside much more famous customers like Vanessa Redgrave, Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes staged pop-up cabaret shows inside the restaurant to try and discourage its execution. And we did. It survived. We won.
A couple of nights ago, the girl who became my wife called me on her way home from work and said “Shall I bring home some Gabys?”, to which the answer, as it had been every other time it had been asked, was “Yes. Please”. Then she told me the bad news.
Gabys is closing at the end of this month. No fight to be had. It’s done. And I’m very sad about it.
It would be very easy to blame this on the continuing deliberate homogenisation of London. The obvious slide toward a city where the rents are so high that only global chains can afford retail space and only oligarchs, millionaires and investment groups have a chance at anything where someone could actually live. This blame would be easy because it is true.
I’m a Londoner. Never felt particularly patriotic to my country, it’s too complicated for me to love unconditionally. But London? I’m London. And so is Gabys. The perfect symbol of what a city like mine is supposed to be. An Iraqi Jew opens a café in the 60’s, serving food that, back then, would have been new and exotic. And over half a damn century it becomes somewhere that every possible kind of person gravitates to, because the food is good, and the people are nice, and the place is comfy and cheap and easy and did I mention how good the food was? Their target market? Their demographic? Bloody everyone. Go in there last week and you’d find west end stars carb-fuelling between shows, tourists getting a taste of a real London café, foodies instagramming their salads, families with kids digging into pitta breads bigger than their heads. I’ve never left that place without a smile on my face, and not just because after I did those shows to keep it open, I always got a couple of free falafel.
Last night we went for one last meal there. It was packed. By this time next week it’ll be gone. Same as Maria's café in Covent Garden, where I had twenty years of full English breakfasts. Gone. Same as the Piccadilly café, where I’d go between matinee and evening shows when I was in the West End for a year. Gone. The places where I fell in love, learnt my trade, built lifelong friendships, had ideas, wrote jokes, sobbed and giggled. Euthanised as part of the ongoing redevelopment of London from a working, beautiful, melting pot city of small businesses, movers, shakers and lifeblood grafters, into a theme park version of itself, a façade of what investment consortia think a city looks like, a boring identikit theme park sham where the only places to eat or shop are the same places as in every other city in the country.
I’m a Londoner, but I moved out recently. I live by the seaside now. Somewhere not quite lucrative enough to have had the authenticity kicked out of it. I go to greasy spoons run by Jewish families, a coffee shop run by a German humanist, and buy way too many ice creams from a local company who came from Italy 85 years ago. I’m sad about Gabys. So sad. It feels like much of what I loved in my twenties has been closed up and erased. Except the girl who became my wife, of course. She still sits across from me in cafes and coffee shops and ice cream parlours. Goodbye Gabys, sorry that yours won’t be a table I get to sit across from her at any more. I won’t spend a penny in whatever takes your place.
Just before you go.. I am currently halfway through a UK tour of my new, Edinburgh fringe sell-out, 5-star reviewed, one man show “Mat Ricardo vs The World”. I would, of course, love you to come. Remaining stops over the next few weeks are Darlington, Camberley, Nottingham, Cumbria and Chelmsford. It’s a funny show about how I spent the last year of my life learning any trick suggested to me by strangers on the internet, and why I did it. Hopefully I’ll see you there. More info can be found by going to the tour page of this website.