Inside Noble Rot Soho, the new "custodian" of the Gay Hussar site and its Hungarian heritage

After months of planning and meetings with the Goulash Co-operative, Noble Rot's owners pay homage to the legendary politician's haunt

Noble Rot 
Mark Andrew (left) and Dan Keeling, co-founders of Noble Rot  Credit: Juan Trujillo Andrades

Opening a restaurant is tough – there are teething issues and unforeseen hiccoughs. Throw in a global pandemic and potential new lockdowns, and things become trickier. But when you’re opening in an historic venue, one that has spawned preservation societies and countless nostalgic eulogies, it adds a unique burden of expectation and responsibility.

“It doesn’t feel like pressure,” admits Dan Keeling, co-founder of Noble Rot in Bloomsbury, which tomorrow opens its second site in the building that housed the famous – some might say infamous – Gay Hussar. “But it does feel like we’re the custodians of that place.” With custodianship comes responsibility, and there were even meetings during the planning stages with the 'Goulash Co-operative', a group of MPs and journalists who fought to keep the original going

The Gay Hussar opened in 1953 on Greek Street, in the heart of Soho. Its founder, Victor Sassie, was a half-Swiss, half-Welsh, Hungarian-trained chef and WWII veteran who spotted an opportunity for a venue serving goulash and stuffed cabbage, perhaps on account of the rising Mitteleuropan population in London. 

It quickly became a favourite in political, intellectual and journalistic circles – the perfect site, with its crimson private rooms, for a spot of political intrigue. It was favoured by the left, with regulars including Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot, Barbara Castle, Tom Driberg, several members of New Labour, and cartoonist Martin Rowson (who has a suite named after him in the reincarnation). Former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams had a regular table where informants would pass on information. But anyone was welcome, and the Gay Hussar was supposedly where Tory ‘Wets’ plotted to overthrow Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s. 

The 21st century saw a gradual decline, with long, boozy lunches no longer the norm, and by June 2018 the restaurant was gone, to the dismay of its devotees. 

Much as it was loved, for many the food wasn’t the main attraction. “I loved it, less for the food and the political cartoons but just the sheer old-Soho debauchery of it all,” says Sunday Telegraph restaurant critic Keith Miller. One old-Soho regular found it a “rather cheerless, dirty place capable of serving unappetising food, heavy on potatoes and fatty goose.” Others criticised its blokey, clubby atmosphere. 

The new Noble Rot Soho dining room Credit: Juan Trujillo Andrades

Noble Rot Soho’s food is unlikely to receive such complaints with Alex Jackson enlisted as head chef. Jackson, whose much-loved Provençal restaurant Sardine closed down during lockdown, has worked with Noble Rot’s existing executive chef, Telegraph columnist and owner of The Sportsman in Seasalter, Stephen Harris, on a menu that references the restaurant’s past while incorporating elements of Jackson’s own cooking and Noble Rot’s ethos. 

“We had a lot of conversations about doing the building and its history justice,” explains Jackson the morning after the restaurant's soft launch. A few Goulash Co-operative members attended, and Jackson jokes he worried they might be “waiting in a dark alley afterwards. But they were all lovely.” 

Jackson admits there’s a sense of “responsibility” about opening in one of the bastions of old Soho, but says there’s “history in the walls,” which helps the atmosphere. The menu features Hungarian touches, such as eggs casino, cabbage stuffed with game and sour cream, and a daily goulash. 

It was important for the team to avoid a clichéd take on Hungarian food. “It’s not a concept restaurant,” insists Keeling. Nonetheless Birmingham-born Jackson has spent the past few months studying Hungarian cooking, discovering parallels between it and his expertise in southern, country-style French and northern Italian food. In autumn, diners will encounter wild mushrooms and game on his menu, ingredients celebrated by both culinary cultures.

“The idea is to put on a few flourishes [to Hungarian food], a doff of the cap,” Jackson expands. “If we can work in some regular things, great. If things have parallels, great. But I’m not a Hungarian chef, I never will be.” Like the original Noble Rot, the restaurant will largely focus on “Franglais” cooking, with Jackson’s introduction of northern Italian cuisine, which he describes as similar to Provençal. Dishes will include pasta with truffles, wet polenta with game, and oysters raveneau. A likely favourite will be the whole roast chicken for two, with morels and vin jaune. 

As with the original site, food will be, in Jackson’s words, “almost in deference to the wine, that’s what it’s really about.” Over the past few years, with its eponymous magazine, the Keeling Andrew & Co wine importing wing, and what Keeling describes as a pricing structure that “as you drink further up we make less money, but it’s better value,” Noble Rot has emerged as one of the country’s most respected wine bars. It is possible to find both a £3 glass and a rare vintage. 

“Both sites are dictated by the wine, that’s our priority. The food needs to be top, but it needs to be compatible,” says Keeling. Scouring cellars and auctions in Europe, the offering is largely Old World. Hungary will be represented, particularly tokaji. 

The Gay Hussar site has been modernised, the ground-floor dining room’s old carpet removed in favour of dark floorboards. Artwork by Noble Rot magazine’s Ben Tardif adorns the walls, and the original built-in benches have been refurbished. The political books that once lined the shelves have been replaced by tomes on food and wine. Upstairs, the Rowson Suite will honour the cartoonist, who has painted new works, including one of Barbara Castle and Michael Foot leaving the restaurant, and chef Angela Hartnett and Nigella Lawson on Greek Street, alongside Amy Winehouse and, for some reason, Rod Liddle in drag. The top floor will still be a private room, limited to six for the time being. 

Opening in Soho poses additional challenges. The pandemic has kept many out of city centres – though Keeling says Soho seems busier than more tourist-dependent areas, such as Covent Garden, or office-dependent ones like the City. “Of course there are tourists in Soho, but there’s also a community that loves it. It doesn’t feel like a disaster by any means.” 

It is among the area's atmospheric stalwarts – The French House, Quo Vadis, Bar Italia and L’Escargot – that Keeling hopes Noble Rot will settle in. “We want to preserve some of old Soho, but bring it into the future,” says Keeling. And if the fervent fanbase of the original site transports to Soho, then it shouldn’t be a struggle. “I think a restaurant should be like a good book or album,” says Keeling, referencing his music industry background. “It should be a bubble where you forget the outside world for a while. That was the best feedback I got [after the soft launch], which, in 2020, is the best compliment anyone can pay you.”