HISTORY AND HALF-PINTS AT THE FRENCH HOUSE
The French House is a pub in Soho that opened in 1891 (then known as the York Minster). Famous patrons over the decades have included Dylan Thomas, Lucien Freud, and Francis Bacon. It famously serves only half-pints of beer, except on April Fools’ Day. Mobile phones are not allowed on any day of the year.
The French House, 49 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 5BG. Phone: 20 7437 2477
I walked into The French House for the first time a few weeks after moving to London in 2002. I was in Soho with a friend, and we had some time to kill. Maybe the outside of the pub, cluttered with French flags, seemed attractive because I had been living in Paris until very recently. Perhaps it was the Grade II listed building that called us in. Or perhaps we just drifted into the pub aimlessly, like one drifts into many places without much of a thought when wasting time in London.
It must have been around three or four in the afternoon, but the tiny bar was already besieged by thirsty punters puffing away (as used to be the tradition until the smoking ban was introduced in 2007 and we discovered pubs actually smelled of wet dog). After waiting for two or three minutes, we managed to order two pints of beer. Here we bumped into the first “eccentricity” of The French House: they only served half-pints, as the barman informed us with the blasé demeanour expected of a London barman. Now this might be akin to a personal affront to the regular British beer drinker — that lesser of evil the half-pint — but we just accepted this without much thought. The second “eccentricity” didn’t take long to arrive. My friend’s mobile phone rang (these were the days when people actually called instead of sending text messages), and he answered. And as soon as this happened, the bartender shouted in our direction, pointing to a sign above written in yellow chalk on a small black wooden board: IN THE INTEREST OF SERIOUS DRINKING AND GOOD CONVERSATION PLEASE DON’T USE YOUR MOBILE PHONE IN THE FRENCH. After our initial shock — this was 2002, but mobile phones were already pretty ubiquitous — we soon realised that people indeed were conversing, an activity also facilitated by the absence of music or a TV set.
This was my first time and not the last one. The French House is one of my usual hangouts in the unusual times I find myself in Central London with time, money, and a thirst to quench. I am pleased to say it hasn’t changed that much in the past 15 years. I am not sure it has changed at all since it opened its doors. The sign warning against mobile phones is still there, not far from a dusty French beret hanging from a pole — reassuring signs that not everything in the Big Smoke is lost.
To have a place that refuses to change and refuses to adapt to a present that many times feels like a defeat is a triumph.
The French House opened in 1891. Back then it was called the York Minster, but it was already known as the French House (or the French Place) by its clientele and the locals. In 1984, the current name was formally adopted after a fire in the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York (also known as York Minster). After the fire, donations for the repair works in the church were sent to the pub by mistake. Now a pub in Britain might be almost a religious institution, but the mixup and the hassle of delivering the donations to their rightful recipients was too much for the landlords. Another, less altruistic, version suggests the reason for the re-baptism lies behind a misplaced order of claret that ended up in the cathedral. In any case, it is hard today to imagine the pub being called anything else but The French House.
The pub has been a favourite of Soho bohemians since its early days. Painters like Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, writers like Dylan Thomas (who lost a manuscript there) and Malcolm Lowry, big names from the press — including the mother of all agony aunts, Irma Kurtz — have crossed its doors and sat around the bar, in the cosy wooden interior, at one time or another. Even the French resistance in London drank here during WWII — it is said that General Charles Le Gaulle used it as an office. The hundreds of photos hanging on its walls are reminders that one is drinking in an institution, supervised by many a famous, historically relevant, and sometimes even talented drunk. Sometimes it is possible to bump into a contemporary “star”: musicians, actors, persons of unknown talents yet familiar faces. Not that any of the locals would act differently when this happens.
The pub has been a favourite of Soho bohemians since its early days.
The pub continues with the tradition of serving half pints but has recently relaxed, one day a year, on April the first, also known as April Fools’ Day. Not only can you get a “proper” pint that day, if you arrive early – if you are the first – you might get Suggs, the singer from Madness, to pull the pint for you, as is now the tradition. I ignore Suggs’ credentials as a bartender, but his credentials as a musician are equally dubious and, nevertheless, he has sold a few records. And between a pint or another Madness record, I would take the first one without a second thought.
Many things have changed in Soho in recent years. CrossRail, a massive project that will connect London even more and has a massive neural point in Tottenham Court Road, just 100 metres away is the last one to threaten the area. To have a place that refuses to change and refuses to adapt to a present that many times feels like a defeat is a triumph. And it doesn’t matter whether this triumph is served in a small or a large glass.
Feature photograph copyright Lsantilli - stock.adobe.com