The Lorelei, London

Lorelei, Soho

Right in the pivotal centre of Soho, there is a time machine. Walk along Bateman Street until you see a café painted as the Italian Tricolore. You really can't miss it. It looks like it's closed, doesn't it? It probably isn't. Try the door. Is it open? Yes? Well, step right into 1955. Welcome to the Lorelei – one of the last survivors of 'real' Soho. The first thing you'll notice is that the decor is a curious mix of village hall and alpine hut. The second thing is the mural of the naked mermaid that takes up an entire wall. I've never seen the odd-looking light fittings switched on to illuminate it.

From the Formica tables, the lino floor, to the faux-leather banquettes round the walls, almost everything is as it was the day it opened. In the little kitchen area, the elderly proprietor quietly produces the best pizza in London – the genuine Italian flour for these is stacked up by the front door. Watching the vintage grey-green Cimbali coffee machine operated is akin to seeing Handel himself playing the organ. That's the sound of real coffee being made. Chips come cooked to order, always on an ancient glass plate. A little mound of hot golden matchsticks, sweet and crunchy.

How a place so comically un-modern still exists in the centre of this ever-changing city is a mystery. Need the loo? It's in an outhouse down the yard – primly segregated into 'gents' (hand written in gloss paint on a brick) and 'ladies'. Even the plumbing is original. There's never any piped music on – although the dusty old speaker still on the wall no doubt once pumped out Tommy Steele. You bring your own atmosphere. It's the eye in Soho's storm.

There's no need to book a table. The staff always seem a bit surprised when anybody walks in. At night, when the window is streaked with condensation you can watch people stop to scrutinise the menu, their faces yellow from its sodium light. They rarely come in, perhaps preferring the bright lights and familiarity of better-known restaurants. They don't know what they're missing. The world needs character as much as it needs wipe-clean convenience.

Lorelei mural, Soho

Once, Soho was full of coffee houses, started by Italians in the immediate post-war era. Some, like the famous (and long gone) Two-I's on Compton Street were to become the crucible for the UK's all-conquering pop music industry. Only a very few of these little caffs remain. The New Piccadilly – untouched since 1951 and once described as 'a cathedral amongst cafes' has already gone. Get to the Lorelei while you can.

The Lorelei, 21 Bateman Street, Soho, London W1D 3AL

How to get there

The best way to get there is by tube to Tottenham Court Road, then walk along Oxford Street until you see Dean Street on your left. Walk down Dean Street until you come to a pub called The Crown And Two Chairmen. Turn left into Bateman Street – keep walking and the Lorelei is on your left. Forget driving – although turning up on a Vespa would be cool.

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Given the number of times I've wandered through Soho I can't believe I've not spotted this gem. Looks like a great oasis of pre Starbucks yesteryear. Real shame about the New Piccadilly, terrible food mind.

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