ICafe Valoti: the soul of Shaftesbury Avenue

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Bright lights, big city... Vic Valoti set up his brilliant cafe, just over the road from Cambridge Circus, in 1947.

Valoti's was one of the very best London classic cafes, and for nearly fifty years the Formica and banquette-clad retreat, with its ceiling full of space-age lights, had been a celebrated actors bolt hole.

In her youth, Audrey Hepburn (then an impoverished chorus girl needing credit) had been a regular, alongside stars Albert Finney, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Ron Moody, Sid James and Tommy Steele.

Mirka Summers, who worked at Valoti's for over eleven years, was famed for ordering Dustin Hoffman to take his place at the back of a queue.

Rupert Everett once warned he would 'die without my twice daily helping of Valoti's baked beans', and owner Rick Valoti keened: "It's like a community centre here... Having to leave this wonderful family here is breaking my heart... "

Valoti's remained an oasis of loud orange tiling, high-backed booths and cute coat-hangers until, in October 1996, over 1500 people (including long-time customers Rupert Everett, Albert Finney and Tom Conti) signed a petition to halt its redevelopment.

The anti-closure campaign was not to succeed however and Valoti's closed on Sat Nov 9 1996.

Vic Valoti: "Valoti's was set up in 1947 in Shaftesbury Avenue and my father, Vic, opened another place, The Sorrento right next to it - one of the first places to bring over an espresso machine.

My mum used to run the cafe on her own when dad was in the army. She used to rule customers with a rod of iron, they all liked her: Audrey Hepburn, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson...

It was very homely, family run. Never modernised much. A lick of paint here and there; chairs went, banquettes came... Everything was done by hand. Chips were fresh-cut. We even made the pastries and cakes ourselves.

When Albert Finney became a star in the original London stage-run of Billy Liar my mum used to look after him, he was only a kid! He used to say, 'call me Alberto mum' he was almost part of the family! The 1950s was the pinnacle of the lunch hour, so we were really busy.

These days people eat when they can, the whole ethos has changed. When the big firms with canteens started, lunch trade died down and the cafes wound down too. Then in the 60s/70s the whole sandwich thing took off.

The 80s were really tough, massive increases in rent. Small places couldn't cope with that. We'd relied a lot builders coming in but in the 80s the building trade was non-existent. A lot of cafes suffered. I do miss it - not the work, the bonhomie.

It was always a tough business. I always said to myself 'I don't want my kids to have to do this.' But we were family. We stuck through it."

Stewart Home: Memories of Valoti (April 2002)

"My West End caff experience has basically been one of shrinkage. After Cafe Espana on Old Compton Street became a bistro, Valoti's became my number one lunch spot.

Valoti's was never as downmarket as Cafe Espana, but the food at both was reliable and cheap; that was the attraction, you could get better if you spent more, but for the price it was very good.

I went to Valoti's to eat, and I only ever ate two things: the cream cheese and pineapple salad or cheese omelette with chips.

The waitresses seemed to know what everyone who'd ever been in there ate. I didn't have to say omelette or salad, just hot or cold and I'd get what I wanted.

If I just wanted coffee I'd go elsewhere, so in Valotti's I'd always drink a large tea.

The waitresses would say 'hello, how are you' as I went in, and as soon as I sat down there'd be a large tea in front of me. It came in a tall glass that was inserted into a chrome holder with handle. Then I'd say either "hot" or "cold" and I'd get my food.

Once Valoti's became lunch central, I probably went in there on average once a week and didn't stop going until it closed.

I used to treat the Valoti's like an office, and no one minded because I avoided the busy times. I'd be addressing envelopes and licking stamps in there.

The waitresses couldn't bear to see me licking stamps, so they'd bring over a saucer of water for me to dip the stamps in. I'd do interviews in there too, that was fine, no one minded.

The waitresses never changed and they were fantastic; like everything you wanted you mum to be but without the aggro of them actually being your mum.

I loved them, and they were absolutely the best thing about Valoti's. The best waitresses in any cafe I've ever been too, no one could touch them."

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