Who cares for paid pleasures or pre-organised festivities? Give me spontaneity and unexpected revelries.
Unfortunately my friend Jean-Marc has beaten me to the punch writing about the pub/bistro in Covent Garden that we are destined to frequent. Unfortunately he has also written about said pub/bistro in a way much more eloquent than I, but I won’t let that stop me. Now we will just have two different versions of the same tale.
After an early evening exchanging bad jokes and consolations in a pub near Seven Dials, our stomachs turned us out onto the Covent Garden streets in search of a menu offering something other than steak, steak with a side salad or steak with a side steak. Weaving around the mish-mash of streets that used to confuse me, we stopped in front of a tiny, dimly-lit bistro. There were raised eyebrows from my companion, and one look at the ceiling densely packed with glass beer steins, multicoloured neck-ties, gnarled brown branches and lampshades made out of faded yellow wine labels was enough to convince us both to step inside.
It was a French bistro/pub called Beaujolais. I’ve never had a ‘local’ before, but now I understand the drive to spend as many nights as possible in a place where the surroundings are warm, the music unobtrusive and the owners shake hands with you when you leave. And, of course, where all the signage is in French and the waiters speak to you earnestly in the language before realising you only understood the words ‘fromage’ and ‘aujourd’hui’.
It was a blessing in disguise that there were no tables left so we had to sit at the bar. After divvying up our plat de fromage we found ourselves the targets of a lumbering, loud (and a little bit lewd) local from Brittany. He’d had his bar stool ‘stolen’ from him and, after many a glare at his blonde-haired usurper, and many French curses that went over my head, he spent the rest of the evening standing half-behind, half-beside the bar, joking loudly with us, insulting my Swiss companion and confusing all the hopeful bill-payers when he refused to take their money.
On the bar between my elbows was a silver plaque: “Honestly, I’d rather be at Beaujolais – Tony Hogan”. It turns out it was a year to that very day that Tony Hogan – a British writer who had spent almost every night at Beaujolais for 20 years – had passed away. Our Jack Daniels-scented bar-fellow and then the owner of Beaujolais and some of the barmen each took time to tell us about this man. By all accounts, he was the very model of an English gentleman. An encyclopaedic knowledge of French history, a willingness to sit down with a glass of wine and discuss any confusions, and never a harsh word to anybody.
Up on the wall was an In/Out members board with locals names scrawled in white chalk. Tony’s name was right at the top, marked as ‘Always In’. From the looks on the barmen’s faces when they described the last day they saw him, it was obvious that this was a man well deserving of their reverence. Their loss was great. The owner looked at our demolished plate of cheeses, then met my eye, shrugged and said: ‘C’est la vie’.
Between the bellowing Frenchmen, the insistence on wine over water, the animated stories and the little French signs everywhere saying things like ‘If you are drinking to forget, please pay before drinking’, I honestly would rather be at Beaujolais than many other places, too. Here I cannot help but quote my partner in Beaujolais revelry to finish:
“Jean-Yves waves regally at his clientèle and turns towards me. 'This wine bar has been here for 30 years and there are only locals here.' he whispers, his salt and pepper (avec hint of Brie) beard rustling and bustling nervously as he leans towards me and continues 'You will be locals, I know it...'.”
Let us drink to Tony.