Too old at 90? Soho's favourite maitre d' is told to get her coat

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The Independent Online

For more than seven decades Elena Salvoni has opened doors, waited tables and kept secrets for some of the brightest stars of the stage and screen, earning a reputation among diehard devotees as an endangered link to a bygone era of old-school hospitality.

Now, despite showing the verve of a woman half her age, London's most famous maître d' has been asked to leave the restaurant that bears her name.

No longer will patrons at Elena's L'Etoile on Charlotte Street, where signed photographs show the faces of Robert De Niro, Peter O'Toole and Sean Connery, be greeted by the immaculate "Queen of Soho".

Ms Salvoni, who turned 90 last April, expressed sadness about leaving her home from home for almost 20 years – on the day the Government announced plans to scrap the default retirement age. "They've got my name up on the front of the restaurant," she said. "Doesn't that mean anything?"

Ms Salvoni says she has been pushed out of work by Corus Hotels, a Hertfordshire-based group that owns 10 hotels in Britain and two in Malaysia. "They said that at my age they can't get insurance for me," she said. "But this is all double-Dutch to me."

Andrew Hollett, a manager at Corus Hotels, said in a statement: "When Elena reached her 90th birthday we felt it was an appropriate time to retire. Our doors are always open to Elena and we have an arrangement with her to facilitate visits. This arrangement is confidential and it would not be appropriate for us to give details. We look forward to welcoming Elena at the restaurant for many years to come."

After leaving school at 14, Ms Salvoni, who was born to Italian parents in London in 1920, trained as seamstress before taking a job at Café Bleu in Old Compton Street. She never looked back, working her way through some of Soho's most prestigious establishments before getting a job at L'Etoile, as it was called then, in 1992.

Peter O'Toole, Sir Terry Wogan, and Ella Fitzgerald are among Ms Salvoni's customers, and she still counts many stars as her friends. She says she has written letters to them all to give them the bad news. "Peter O'Toole has been so loyal that I had to write him a note," she said in an interview with The Oldie Magazine. "They were all so loyal and I didn't want them to read it in the papers."

As word of Ms Salvoni's departure has swept Soho, so the tributes have flooded in. "I've had lots of letters asking why?" she says. "Cameron Mackintosh was quite choked about it. He came to see me the night of my leaving function." Another customer, the actress Anne Reid, wrote to Ms Salvoni to say, "You are a truly fascinating and amazing woman."

While working at L'Escargot, Ms Salvoni came to the defence of Princess Diana when rumours that she had been seen crying in the restaurant started to circulate in newspapers. There were no tears, she insisted. Other customers include Francis Bacon, who used to "drive her mad" by knocking over bottles of wine and not caring, and Maria Callas.

Ms Salvoni says she will miss the routine of work the most. "I'm lost in the morning now and I think, why am I rushing?" she says. "But it's no good being miserable. I love being with people. They want me to come back occasionally to entertain celebrities, but I don't like the idea of it. I don't want that, that's not my work."

In her career, Ms Salvoni has had to deal with drunk and angry customers. When a journalist she threw out for bad behaviour threatened to ruin her, she said, "You do that." But she has always had far too many allies for anyone to try. As the doyenne of the London dining scene slips off her well-worn shoes, she will be missed by them all.

The Oscar-winner who came for dinner: When Elena met Robert

Elena Salvoni has opened doors to some of the biggest names in showbusiness in her 70-year career as London's most famous maître d'.

Among the most recognisable portraits that adorn the walls of Elena's L'Etoile, the restaurant where she has worked sine 1992, belongs to Robert De Niro, the Oscar-winning star of The Godfather, Part II and Raging Bull.

"He was very sweet," Ms Salvoni recalls of the encounter in the 1990s. "He spoke very good Italian.

"This man came in and sat down with him. So I came over and asked him if he'd like something to eat. 'No,' he said. And De Niro looked at him and said: 'Have something.'

"I said: 'It's bitter out there, have a bowl of soup.' De Niro said: 'She reminds me of [Martin] Scorsese's mother. As soon as you go to Scorsese's house his mother comes in and says "do you want a bowl of soup?"'. So they had some soup."