When people talk about Quo Vadis, they talk about the sandwich. You know the one — dinky fillets of smoked eel between perfectly thin, perfectly crisp slices of sourdough, held together with fiery horseradish cream and served with curlicues of pink pickled red onion. It has the miniature appeal of something from a doll’s house and the oomph of a plate five times its size. But although it’s the most famous thing on the menu, for me it’s another dish that sums up the spirit of the 95-year-old restaurant and members’ club on Dean Street.
‘Cheese straws’ don’t sound like much, do they? A picnic afterthought, something cardboardy from a supermarket three-for-two deal. But when you order them at Quo Vadis, on the basis that it’s still a bit early for dinner and you probably ought to soak up the martini that’s somehow materialised in your hand, what arrives is in a different league altogether. Plump, buttery twists of puff pastry still warm from the oven, latticed with baked cheddar and almost as long as your arm, they’re simple but also wantonly extravagant, the sort of thing that actually makes you burst out loud at their sheer ridiculousness. Go on, they seem to be saying. Why not? Live a little. These are a snack with a sense of occasion, something worth getting dressed up for, the kind of thing that turns a dreary Tuesday into the start of an adventure.
The grid bounded by Oxford Street to the north, Charing Cross Road in the east, Shaftesbury Avenue to the south and Regent Street in the west is unusually dense in restaurants that have been going for years, or even decades. And plenty of places nod to the golden age of W1D with cocktails and an anything-goes atmosphere. What makes Quo Vadis special? It’s partly that so many of the pillars of ‘old’ Soho are actually shadows of their former selves up close. Blacks can’t decide whether it wants to feel like a branch of Daylesford or Aleister Crowley’s front room. And for all the money that’s been spent on smartening it up, the Groucho still seems as stuck in a long-gone moment as a Damien Hirst shark.
But along with The French House, Quo Vadis walks the line between tradition and innovation effortlessly, and has managed to cultivate a spirit of insidery loucheness without being remotely snooty, sneery or exclusive. You don’t have to be a member to have drinks or dinner there – and even if you’re not, the team will treat you like one anyway. Come in more than once and they’ll remember you. Come in regularly and they’ll remember where you like to sit, what you like to drink and that you’re funny about olives.
My first meal there, five years ago, was an accident. I’d gone freelance the week before, and was still giddy with the knowledge that I could, in theory, set up camp with my laptop anywhere that had wifi. (The reality turned out to be slouching over a screen on my sofa all day, then licking the head of my Oral-B Pro at 4 p.m. because I couldn’t remember if I’d brushed my teeth yet.) I was on my way to a co-working space I’d booked a trial at when I found myself pausing in front of Quo Vadis’ stained-glass window.
The leather banquettes, immaculately starched tablecloths, and glossy parquet floor looked much more inviting than the concrete bunker that I was meant to be in. I tiptoed in – were they doing breakfast, I asked? Of course, came the smiling reply. I was ushered to a corner table, where I ordered scrambled eggs on toast, coffee and orange juice. While I waited, I took in the thick white napkins, the satisfying heft of the cutlery and the capering illustrations on the menu, which I later learned were by modern-day Hogarth John Broadley. The toast, when it came, had been buttered to a degree that would concern a cardiologist, as had the eggs. Everything was totally perfect. I lingered until just before the lunch service, pretending to work while I watched the comings and goings in reception. I felt like I was somewhere that anything could happen, and probably did.
Since then I’ve had some of the best meals of my life at Quo Vadis: Christmas dinners with carols afterwards, Burns Night dinners with bagpipe processions, lunches that turned into dinners. In the 1930s, when the place was still under the stewardship of its founder, Italian migrant Peppino Leoni, a journalist described the cooking as a “surprise,” noting that “the sole is served with bananas, the pigeon with pineapple.”
Nowadays, the joy of the menu is its dependability. Jeremy Lee has been bringing his signature blend of seasonal comfort and whimsy to the kitchen since 2012, and while his greatest hits may evolve, they tend to stay put in some form. Kickshaws, little one-bite puff pastry parcels, are a fixture, filled with smoked haddock or perhaps wild rabbit. Retro pies, half-price on a Monday, come with fat, golden chips or mounds of buttery mash, and there are always oysters somewhere. Meringues arrive in outrageous towers, held together with vanilla cream and seasonal fruit and moated with crème anglaise, and the profiteroles come with their own weight again in hot chocolate sauce.
A couple of years ago I became a Quo Vadis member – I’m actually writing this in the upstairs bar (they have their own co-working space, too, thankfully concrete free). It’s just before midday on a Friday, and the dining room is laid up for lunch, like a stage waiting for the lights to go down. I wasn’t planning to eat here today, but I’ve just had some good news – the first in a while – and I’m thinking it might be nice to celebrate. I open the menu on my phone and feel the familiar fingertip tingle at seeing things I know and love, like coming home. Chilled tomato soup, maybe, with radishes, celery salt and butter on the side. And, of course, cheese straws.