EATING OUT: Memories of ancient Greeks

JIMMY'S 23 Frith Street, London W1V 5TS. Tel: 0171 437 9521. Open Monday to Saturday, lunch 12-3, dinner 5.30-11.30. Average price, pounds 10 per head. No credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
IN THE SIXTIES, when Private Eye used to go to press on a Sunday, there was a regular ritual. Willy Rushton's thin cousin Tony would spend the morning bent over a table with a tube of Cow Gum, gluing down the pages of typewritten "jokes", the rest of us would loll in the broken armchairs making facetious suggestions and arguing about the exact wording of the bubble on the cover. The last pages were then put into a big brown- paper envelope and sent off to the printers, and we would go out to a disgusting but very cheap underground Greek restaurant for lunch.

Finding myself in Soho on a Sunday recently I discovered it again. Thirty years later, Jimmy's is still going, though it has now moved to the other side of Frith Street. Like most of the other restaurants in the area is it closed on Sundays, but I had dinner there the following evening. It is still underground, still Greek, still employs one waiter who was there in the old days, and is not by any means as disgusting as I had remembered.

Part of its aura in the old days was its dankness. It was lined with white tiles, which gave it the feel of a public lavatory, and I seem to remember it had a cushion wrapped in black plastic glued to the top of the arch with orange gaffer tape to stop you hitting your head on the sharp edge as you came in. That is all now transformed, though it still preserves what my guest called "a real whiff of old Soho".

Various fans hanging from the ceiling and fixed at odd angles to the walls suggest that it may get a bit fetid in the summer, but the rest is all rough-cast plaster and pine panelling, embroidered maps of Cyprus, ethnic shawls draped round wall-paintings of what could be Clint Eastwood riding into a whitewashed Greek village, photographs of classical statues and little studies in oils in assorted frames.

The tables are covered in dark blue tablecloths with smaller white ones laid over the top, the sugar-shakers evoke memories of long-bankrupt hotels on the south coast, and there is barely a chair the same as any other. The old waiter came over immediately, his smile revealing the glint of gold teeth. He assumed that we would like the House Red, which was cheapest, taramasalata, moussaka and baklava. My companion, an old friend from Oxford, was helpless with silent laughter as she had found something on the drinks list called Filfa Orange Liqueur, so I asked for a bit longer to think about it.

For starters there was grilled haloumi cheese, kalamari - described as "squid marinated and cooked a la Grec", taramosalada (sic), hoummous (sic), tsatsiki, soup of the day, which was minestrone, or grilled loukanika. My friend toyed with the idea of the grilled cheese, I practically decided to have the kalamari. Then the waiter came back, we asked him what loukanika was, he said they were spicy Greek sausages, and we ordered the taramosalada and hoummous.

The most noticeable thing about Jimmy's , which my companion spotted before I did, was that apart from a Pavarotti lookalike in one of the alcoves and a shy young Englishman in glasses attempting to come to grips with a curvaceous lovely, it was full of Chinese. The Chinese invasion of Soho, having for years been stemmed at Shaftesbury Avenue, is now striking north for Soho Square and I was impressed that such shrewd colonists should be eating underground Greek. I thought it might just be gastronomic tourism on their part, but by the end of the evening I came to the conclusion it was hard-headed economics.

Both the taramasalata and hoummous - that still doesn't look right but "humus" is something else entirely - were good, and the pitta bread that came with them was fresh and hot. The House Red at pounds 3.30 a bottle was also perfectly inoffensive. If there was anything to be criticised it was the drifting pong of sweetish pipe tobacco that emanated from a socially assured-looking figure in a blazer sitting in front of the bar. I was thinking, uncharacteristically, of complaining to the proprietor, when he got up, walked behind the bar, took something out of the till, and I realised that he was the proprietor.

For the main course there was a wider choice, including a range of English things (steak, pork, lamb chops, roast chicken or omelettes, all served with salad and chips) and we pored for some time over kleftico, kapama - "fillets of pork marinated and quick fried served with salad", stiffado, aphelia, lamb tava - "lamb stewed in the traditional way" - moussaka and stuffed vine leaves. The stuffed vine leaves loomed a little too vividly in my memories of the Sixties for me really to want to try them again so soon. My long-suffering companion liked the idea, or so she said, of the stiffado - beef cooked in red wine and onion sauce - and I asked for aphelia - pork marinated and cooked in coriander and white wine.

The chips were absolutely OK. The salad was fine, with little bottles of olive oil and vinegar on the table to make a proper dressing. The meat, I have to say as an aspiring food critic, had the slight brittleness that comes from being marinated too long, or cooked too long, or simply preserved too long, but it was not at all unpalatable.

For pudding we shared a single piece of what I would have called baklava - it was spelt in the menu with a "p" rather than a "b", which was as I remembered from the old days - thin shredded wheat soaked in even thinner sweet honey, and very nice. We were enjoying ourselves so much that we both had two cups of Greek coffee.

The bill for two came to pounds 29.70 without the tip. If the Chinese weren't sufficient recommendation, I would suggest that for the size of the helpings and the general wholesomeness of the food Jimmy's - and this certainly isn't old loyalty - is one of the best places to eat cheaply in the whole of the West End.