Thursday, October 05, 2006

What Valerie did next...

Shortly after I first came to London (almost exactly six years ago as it happens), I started a mental list of 'London things I want to do'.

I can't remember the bulk of them now, but I do know one was to have breakfast in Patisserie Valerie.

Patisserie Valerie sits on Old Compton Street, and every time I was going one way or the other along that busy Soho thoroughfare, I made sure to slow down and allow myself the childish pleasure of nose-to-glass cake-gawping... The window under the awning is always full of magnificently frilly chocolate creations; cakes upon which dancing girls of icing shake multiple skirts; hosts of fruit tarts; a plethora of pastries; outrageously decadent gelatined creamy creations... It's a wonderland.

It wasn't until about two years ago that I actually managed to tick that ambition of the list though. One morning, Shelley and I were in town at just about the right time for breakfast and just about the right place for Valerie's.

So we entered the narrow little room and settled ourselves in a dated looking table near the back. I had poached eggs on toast, I had some fragrant tea, I had the thickest hot chocolate I've ever had, and if memory serves correct, I washed it all down with one of the preposterously pretty fruit tarts. Shell was a willing accomplice in gluttony, so between us we sampled a fair proportion of the menu, including taking extra cakes with us (in a pleasingly salmon pink box) 'for later'.

It was everything I had thought it would be.

Later, I had reason to have briefer and less exciting dalliances with other branches of the small chain. Cream tea on a winter's day, and various little tarts bought here and there. A treat to be sure, but with none of the magic of the original Soho branch.

Most recently Little Sister Saucepan and I sat down for a post-shopping pot of tea at the Kings Road branch, and proceeded to wait 20 minutes to have our order taken. After we'd waited another 5 or 10 for the tea, with no apologies forthcoming, we walked out and took our custom elsewhere.

So it's with mixed feelings that I greet the news that Patisserie Valerie has been sold (or at least enough of it to matter). It has been acquired by Risk Capital Partners of which Luke Johnson, already chairman of Channel 4, and now also of Valerie's, is a member. Johnson has been involved with the development of Belgo, Pizza Express, Strada and Giraffe, and is evidently expecting Valerie to follow the same style of domination.

According to the Times, "The first outlet [of Patisserie Valerie] opened in Frith Street, Soho, in 1926, when the Belgian-born Madame Valérie decided to introduce continental patisserie to the English. It moved around the corner to its present location in Old Compton Street after those premises were destroyed in the Blitz.

"The decor of the site is a holdover from the 1950s, complete with Toulouse-Lautrec cartoons. Since 1987 Patisserie Valerie has been owned by the Scalzo brothers, Enzo, Robert and Victor, who have turned the business into a chain of 11 cafés, all in London, including three franchised outlets.

"The sale process is understood to have been sparked by a difference of opinion between the eldest Scalzo, Enzo, and Robert and Victor, who are twins, over the best way forward for the business."

It seems to me that this recent development is in many ways but a consolidation of what was already happening. Although the Old Compton Street original seemed to retain much of its charm and integrity the process of branching out was already producing paler versions, cliches, clones. And now there will just be that many more of them.

I can't get that misty-eyed for the old Valerie, because I have only known it since it started expanding, and no doubt it will be a reliable-enough place to stop for an (expensive) cup of tea and a confection, as chains tend to be. But what chains can't provide is the magic and mystery of a place with its own history, which the original little VAlerie still clung on to.

No doubt also it will be a valuable asset for Mr Johnson, but I for one will endeavour not to contribute to his profit, and look instead for more exciting, singular little places - places to put on a wishlist, to aspire to, not to pass by with the same 'see it a million times' nonchalance with which we must view 90% of our modern high streets.

1 comment:

Little sister saucepan said...

A trip to Valerie almost always accompanies Big sister saucepan and my shopping trips but alas this is to be no more. It has been a long time since such poor service has provoked such anger in me. It is upsetting that after so many lovely trips to Paterissie Valerie (albeit not the Old Compton Street branch) that one waiter can ruin the pleasure of good tea and cakes and I shall most certainly be on the look out for new tea and cake shops for me and big sister saucepan to frequent.