Come to the cafe: chill out in style

It was the place to be - in the Thirties, and again in the Eighties. Now the Cafe de Paris, in the heart of London's clubland, is making a fresh bid for the smart set - and anyone who wants a little elegance on their night out...James Style reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Nick Truelocke can't wait to see it happen - to see the champagne corks popping, the love affairs blossoming, the song and dance and romance. And he need wait only a few hours now, because tomorrow night the doors of his club, the Cafe de Paris, will open once more, to admit the bon ton of the Nineties.

London, like nostalgia, is not what it used to be. The cafe, which opened in 1924 on Leicester Square, was modelled on the Palm Court aboard the ill-fated Lusitania; it became an elegant survivor of a bygone age. Today it keeps odd company with Planet Hollywood next door and the Fashion Cafe above. It is a place rich in history, one of the haunts of glamorous wraiths - and, for all we know, still haunted by them - at the very heart of Hype City.

"I've always wanted to do a supper club," says Truelocke, who is blonde, bronzed, handsome, funny and charming, with a cheeky hint of the spiv in the finest Soho tradition, who had to wheel and deal, and had a brush with sex-shop magnate Paul Raymond, to emerge as the cafe's new owner. And where better to "do a supper club" than at the Cafe de Paris?

The cafe always attracted a glittering clientele. The Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor, went there to dance the charleston in the afternoons, and was so drawn to the place that he would spend three nights a week there in the company of a string of society ladies - Mrs Dudley Ward, Lady Furness and, most famously, Wallace Simpson. So smart did the cafe become in those early days that it was considered something of a relief when the white-tie rule was relaxed, and gentleman could break out in black.

From the Twenties right through to the Second World War, the Cafe de Paris was a place of starry entertainment. Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, Fred and Adele Astaire all took the stage here. Audiences drank in the finest cabaret along with the finest fizz, surrounded by such habitues as Orson Welles and Vivien Leigh. Darlings, everyone who was anyone went there to get squiffy.

It flourished in 1939, 1940 ... Didn't they know there was a war on? These were the years of black-outs and the black market. Young, able men were called up in their millions. Rationing was introduced. The Luftwaffe's bombs fell on London. The average family spent pounds 1 a week on food. And as the commonality sat down to their Blitz broth, the beau monde flocked to the Cafe de Paris as ever, perhaps to drown their sorrows with sparkling wine.

Maybe it was hubris on the part of the head waiter, Martin Poulson, that brought a curse down on the place and almost literally brought the house down. Because surely he was tempting fate when he declared that, with four floors above it, the cafe was safe from attack. Whatever, on 8 March, 1941, just as Ken "Snakehips" Johnson, the hugely popular West Indian band leader, took the stage, two huge devices crashed through the Rialto cinema above and landed in the middle of the dance floor. Although only one of these exploded, the carnage was terrible: 80 people died that night, and the glory-glory days of the Cafe de Paris were ended.

After the war, the Quaglino brothers took over, and for a while Coventry Street again grew accustomed to the comings and goings of limousines from Buckingham Palace. The Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, held her 23rd birthday party here. Her sister, Princess Margaret, came with Captain Peter Townsend.

By the Sixties the cafe seemed stuck in a time warp, it continued to host tea dances in an atmosphere of faded splendour, while out there London had gone psychedelic.

It took the photographer Nick Fry, a well-connected young trendy and aristocrat, to put the place back on the map, when he persuaded the owners to let him hold a midweek club night.

As London became the club capital of the world, so the Cafe de Paris became the club of the capital, attracting an international clientele. The dedicated and the desperate would queue for hours in the hope of admittance, as the wealthy celebrities were ushered in under their noses. Mick and Jerry, Bryan Ferry, Boy George, George Michael ... There was no guest list, and everyone stumped up a fiver. From 1986 to 1990, the Cafe de Paris was once more the place to be.

Has Truelocke got what it takes to restore the cafe yet again to it former prominence? His track record says yes. He has been a Soho mover since the early Eighties, behind clubs such as Delirium, where the Beastie Boys and Run DMS gave impromptu gigs at the height of their fame, and Do Do's at Busby's, where Frankie Goes To Hollywood gave their first London gig. He is a regular writer for the style journal I-D, an early pioneer of house music. Most recently he transformed Madame Jo-Jo's from a tacky strip joint into one of London's most Bohemian and best-attended clubs. It was at Jo-Jo's that the whole new wave of lounge and easy-listening clubs began. All of which bodes well for the cafe.

"It's one of those spaces that just feels good as soon as you walk in," says Truelocke, who believes that dance music has run its course, and who has, anyway, had more than enough of all that. "When we bought the cafe, the intention was to make it a night club, but I wasn't that keen. I'm bored with rave music, dancing in fields and wearing grunge clothing. I wanted somewhere to dress up, somewhere you could eat and drink in style."

One of Truelocke's best friends, and also his greatest rival, is Oliver Peyton, the man behind another ultra-swish Art Deco watering hole, the Atlantic Bar. Surely the phenomenal success of the Atlantic made it easier for Truelocke to raise the pounds 1.5 million he needed to restore the Cafe de Paris? Easier, also, to attract Steve Whitney, Anton Mosimann's star apprentice, as head chef. Truelocke hopes that the cafe will become a meeting place which will buzz with conversation, while music serves as a background.

For a truly cosmopolitan city, London has a real need for the Cafe de Paris, a place to eat or drink in comfort and high style, day or night. The building cannot fail to evoke its own illustrious past, and to command grace and civility in an ungracious, uncivil age. If you are weary of having your eardrums blasted by repetitive computer music in a dingy, sweat-drenched hole where you are pestered by drug pushers, and sipping a cocktail as you listen, half dreamy, to the chanteuse at the piano, the cafe could be for you - at a price. If "them upstairs", Claudia and Naomi, get rowdy, the management can always bang on the ceiling with a broomstick.

So ... the house band is rehearsed, the waiters and waitresses have been trained to catch the customer's eye, even when the press of thirsty drinkers around the bar is four-deep. "It's out of my hands now," says Truelocke.

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