The London food scene increasingly resembles a series of interlocking cults built up around a chef, or a set of restaurants, or an aesthetic. There’s the St. John cult of course, still extant, and its Rochelle Canteen offshoot, frequented by London’s Bougie Literary Women. Sometimes wine is used as a ritual: there’s the east London sect built around Noble Fine Liquor (P. Franco, Bright, Peg), and in the south around Gergovie wines and 40 Maltby Street, whose weekly sandwiches are a kind of liturgy.
It’s difficult to say whether Anna Tobias’s first restaurant represents some kind of schism or a merging: Tobias cut her teeth with Jeremy Lee at The Blueprint Cafe (the Alistair Little-adjacent cult) and at The River Cafe (perhaps the oldest cult still extant), made her name at Rochelle, progressed to the hobs at P. Franco and has now teamed up with the 40 Maltby Street team to open Cafe Deco on Bloomsbury’s Store Street. Either way, it means one thing: hype, and a congregation of believers waiting patiently even on a rainy Thursday morning.
Opening during lockdown means that the much awaited Chartier embossed plates of #beigefood that Tobias has been edging on Instagram will stay in development for a bit longer, but it does mean that Cafe Deco will reach more locals in its first few weeks, as a deli and traiteur. Ever since Tobias’s interview with Rebecca May Johnson four years ago, the epithet “brown food” has followed Tobias in every subsequent mention of her, but it’s always been meant as a shorthand to describe food that doesn’t need to draw attention to itself, that stands without unnecessary adornment.
In Cafe Deco’s first menu it is literal, although “brown food” doesn’t quite sum up the burnt umber of a fried schnitzel flattened to the thickness of a £1 coin, enlivened with the anise and acid of a sauce gribiche; or the khaki of Coronation cauliflower fritters in oil rich focaccia, or the russet of a proper pork pie; or a malty chocolate chip biscuit with the sober character of a digestive; or a quiche that radiates from a sunshine yellow centre to caramel to a burnished brown crust, its mantle containing an emulsion of egg so rich with cheese and cream it seems perpetually on the verge of self-collapse.
At the moment, Cafe Deco has the look of an unusually beautiful looking deli given its frieze designed by 40 Maltby Street’s Anna Hodgson and Harry Darby, and its “if you know, you’re in the know” multicoloured tiled floors was meant for a proper restaurant, but it’s a boon to have a genuinely great sandwich option in the area that hasn’t existed since the heyday of Italia Uno. The influence of the great Bermondsey restaurant and wine bar can be felt keenly in the menu right now ─ two sandwiches (one of them a fritter), pork pies, a quiche ─ is a mirror image of Bermondsey, but the incorporation of Tobias’ food into an existing aesthetic feels more seamless than at P. Franco and perhaps even at Rochelle. A reverse pivot to a restaurant is planned for the (scheduled) end of lockdown nest week, but it wouldn’t be a tragedy if it lasts longer.
In fact it would be a boon for Bloomsbury should Tobias and co. keep offering the bits and pieces customers can take home, in tupperwares, displayed behind a tiered glass counter: a chicken casserole, the grated carrots that once made it onto P. Franco’s menu in a moment of Duchampian provocation, some vegetables and walnuts, ciders, wines from Gergovie, some homemade jams. In a nod to lazy food writers, there is also just one bottle of sauce to take away: not red or orange or white, but brown.