For as long as I can remember, Gaby’s Deli on Charing Cross Road has been part of my London cityscape. Just down from the Wyndham Theatre, it is a familiar West End presence – a modest façade with Gaby’s trademark colourful salads proudly displayed in the window. Now this modest, down-to-earth eaterie is under threat, with Gaby Elyahou of Gaby’s given notice to quit by his landlords, Gascoyne Holdings.
“I’ve been here since 1964,” explains Gaby, a sprightly, dapper figure, with a shrewd face and wonderfully alert eyes. “It was a salt beef bar before I took it over. I added more dishes, bought an espresso machine, started to concentrate on the salads – we do 37, all home-made. The people who eat here, they know about salt beef. It’s a meal. You can see how much meat we put in the sandwich. I think it’s the best sandwich in the world. I mean it. What other sandwich can you have so much meat in?”
As we chat, Gaby insists on ordering me a plate of his falafel to sample. It arrives promptly – a generous serving of crisp, freshly-fried falafel on a bed of humous, topped with foul medames, then tahini, sprinkled with parsley, with two warm pitta bread on the side. Truly tasty food. Watching Gaby in action, teasing the old ladies sitting to our left, calling out a friendly greeting to a customer walking by, noticing that a customer needs sugar for his coffee, I realise, however, it’s not simply the good, fresh food and the reasonable prices which bring people back here time and time again. This is a place with a human face to it. Gaby is one of a fast-vanishing breed of proper, old school proprietors – alert, democratic, experienced, proud of his business, relishing the face-to-face contact with all his customers, gloriously nosy and interested in everyone who comes in. As a result, in a world where clonetown franchises dominate, Gaby’s has that rare quality – personality.
“There are too many chains around here now,” says Gaby thoughtfully. “We serve home-made soup, really filling, moussaka, meatballs, goulash. We have a special every day,” he gestures towards the board. “Tell me – in the West End, where else can you sit and eat a meal for £6 or £7? I don’t have tablecloths or a waiter with a white starched short, but all the food is freshly made. We get in at 8am – we have to prepare the food. It’s a lot of work. Eating a sandwich – that’s boring! There are too many sandwich shops. We get a lot of theatre people, always have done, always actors. They want something light before the show, so they have a salad.”
“People come back here. We have customers returning from America, Scandinavia, South Africa, from Timbuktu – they come from all over the world. I just had a customer tell me that his grandparents from South Africa always come here when they’re in London, so they told him to come.”
The announcement that Gaby’s was being closed down has seen an extraordinary response from his customers, with their campaign to Save Gaby’s launched on Facebook quickly attracting thousands of supporters. A series of Falafel Cabarets have been launched, with Gaby’s thespian customers, such as the actors Henry Goodman and Simon Callow, generously performing to help spread the word.
Among the Save Gaby’s team is Steve Engelhard, who explains why he joined the campaign. “I’ve known Gaby’s for many years. I think it was my big brother who first alerted me to it. We’re a family with Jewish origins – so salt beef, falafel, salads are comfort food as far as I’m concerned. Gaby’s is affordable, it’s unpretentious, the quality is high and it’s very individual – there’s none of the blandness which goes with chains. When I heard that Gaby’s was threatened, I thought I’ve seen too many of my favourite places closing. I’m not a campaigner by habit. It pleases me no end that there’s such a community of people willing to make a stand about this. I think it’s a sense of maintaining a personal landscape, a personal identification with something that contributes to the quality of life and to the soul of London. Without individual places like Gaby’s the West End could easily be as bland as any standard high street.”
The affection in which Gaby’s is held is almost palpable. Gaby’s customers, when they realise that I’m writing about the Save Gaby’s campaign, are eager to tell me what Gaby’s means to them. A middle-aged man, who’s been sitting together with his wife and young daughter eating a meal at a table next to me, stops unprompted to talk to me. “I first came here in my early 20s, so have been coming here for 25 years now. It would be a terrible shame if it went. It’s a disgrace that Westminster Council didn’t protect it. Walk to Leicester Square – all you see are crappy pizza and pasta restaurants. They should be protecting this – tourists want London proper, not chain London. This is an iconic, one-off restaurant.” An elegantly-dressed, elderly gentleman pauses shyly on his way out to tell me “I’ve been coming here for decades. It’s desperately sad. So much of London is under threat. It seems wrong that someone who’s been here for so long can be kicked out when so many people care about it.”
Gaby himself is touched by the campaign, wryly amused at the fuss his customers are stirring up. “It was all from the customers. People came and said “We’re not going to let you go.” Boris Johnson, Ken Livingston, actors – they all come here to show support. The newspapers, TV they’ve all come here. I know a lot of people. Fifty years here, it’s not three months. I hope they don’t spoil the West End, but I think they will.” He pauses and shrugs expressively. A neatly printed notice sellotaped to the counter behind him reads: ‘Thank you to our customers who set up and signed up to Save Gabys Deli on Facebook. We are very touched by all your support. The management and team at Gaby’s.’
“The only hope,” explains Steve Engelhard from the Save Gaby’s campaign, “ is to change the mind of Gascoyne Holdings and its directors, notably Lord Salisbury – because everything else has been tried. Westminster have granted the planning consent. The only remaining hope is to change the minds of the owners. We’ve had huge press coverage. The question is do these people want to minimise the bad publicity they’re getting? Do they want to be clever and get good publicity for doing the right thing in the end and saving a well-loved institution?” If affection and loyalty alone were enough to save Gaby’s deli, then its future would absolutely be assured.
Thankfully, spring 2012 saw Gaby’s granted a temporary reprieve, with his lease extended until May 2013. The Save Gabys campaign remains vigilant, ready to spring back into vociferous action should the threat to close their beloved Gaby’s return.