I lay in bed on Tuesday night thinking about pancakes (yes I do such things) and I came up with a couple of ideas about why I like them so much. It’s not just because I’m a pig, and it’s nothing to do with Lent. Nor is it just so that I can take out the sticky pot of Lyle’s Golden Syrup without feeling guilty.
It goes beyond the yumminess and the taste. It is all about the pancakes of my past which signified very good times for me.
As a kid back in the 70s I lived a charmed life and as a family we would often go ‘up to town’ for lunch on a Saturday or Sunday. For many years the destination was a crêperie at 329 King’s Road called Asterix, which had a huge painting of Asterix and Obelix the cartoon characters (written by Goscinny and illustrated by Uderzo) on the exposed brick wall. The chef cooked savoury buckwheat galettes for main courses and sweet crêpes for dessert, the adults drank dry Normandy cider and the effusive owner George Reynolds played Vivaldi (loud) through the speakers and brought over Asterix books for the kids to read before the food came. I was a fast reader and always tried to finish a whole book before the first course arrived.
I was a fussy eater when I was very young and used to have sweetcorn in a crêpe for my main course (odd, maybe, but this is what I liked) but I soon joined the grown ups and would order a galette with petit suisse, chives and ham inside. It makes me drool to remember it!
For those who didn’t fancy flaming crêpe suzette for pudding there was ‘piggy cake’ (back then chocolate fudge cake was quite new on the scene, and this was a fine specimen of it). It was also the place where I developed a keen desire for mint choc chip ice cream. The really clever people asked for ice cream inside a crêpe and got the best of both worlds.
I don’t know if the owner George was a film star or actor or just behaved like one. In my memory he was handsome and welcoming and definitely a large part of Asterix’s charm. My brother remembers George as a resting actor and a friend of Richard O’Brien. At this time Richard O’Brien was first shocking London with his Rocky Horror Show. This now cult musical opened Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre and then stayed on the King’s Road at the Chelsea Cinema, next door to Habitat, and then moved to another cinema theatre further up the King’s Road. You can see where my history with Habitat started, as we always popped in there too and would often stop off in the café upstairs.
Right opposite Habitat, Malcolm McClaren had opened the Sex clothes shop, selling teddy boy clothes made by his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood alongside 50s vinyl and other anarchist and fetishist fashion. He would pick his singers and artists from amongst the customers; some of the shop assistants included Sid Vicious and Chrissie Hynde.
As for the Rocky Horror Show, my parents saw it in its first run back then, and I will never forget the stories about the actors barely clad in suspenders and ripped stockings sitting on my Mum’s lap and draping themselves over her before the show had started – those sorts of things didn’t happen in Britain in those days. They don’t happen that often these days! We all grew up to be big Rocky Horror fans, yes even dressing up and going en famille when I was barely a teenager…
Definitely stories for another blog post. But it’s fun to think of the King’s Road of the 70s, with its punks hanging out on every corner and its shops selling rebellious and provocative fashion. I can imagine why a jobbing actor like George Reynolds would think that 1970s King’s Road was the perfect place to open a new restaurant.
I will just share with you you two final odd facts about Asterix, which I have found online. These are an endorsement of the place by Joan Armatrading (odd because she doesn’t sound like she enjoys food much) in Joan Armatrading’s My Favourite Table and that Glenn Frey of the Eagles once lived above it when in London in 1971 to record the album The Eagles. Eagles fans can read more here.
After these tales of a fashionably rebellious London, my second trip down pancake memory lane will seem a lot tamer as it takes us to The Place to Eat in the department store John Lewis…
As a child I of course had the best dental treatment to go along with my charmed life and my dentist father used to take me out of school for my orthodontist appointments. You will not believe it now but I used to have a huge gap between my two front teeth, and of course this had to be rectified by a good dose of braces and headgear. My Dad’s best friend was (and still is) the brilliant orthodontist Dr Neville Bass, who still practices at Bass Orthodontics in Queen Anne Street London W1, and in fact his son (Dr) Anton still works with my brother as a dentist at Sparkly Smile in Blackheath SE3 on the days when he is not at Queen Anne Street himself. If you have crooked teeth or halitosis, or just feel like a whiter smile, you now have two recommendations in one paragraph (always try Sparkly Smile first).
On appointment days my Dad would turn up to school to pick me up and we would drive up to town, having a quick check up and change of elastic bands at the orthodontist before moving on to the main event: lunch at The Place to Eat inside the John Lewis on Oxford Street. The Place to Eat was (and I think still is) an in-store restaurant with different sections within it, eg Carvery, Juice Bar etc. Guess what type of food I always chose. The pancakes were fantastic, made before your very eyes on the proper round pancake griddles. I used to perch up on a high stool and watch wide-eyed as the cook would spread out the batter in a perfect circle and flip it over with a fine spatula. Again, the joy I took in these outings probably came more from the fact that I should have been in school, but actually was on a secret adventure into London with my Dad, rather than the fact that the pancake tasted good.
So maybe not the excitement of 70s punkish Kings Road and transvestites in fish nets, but for me as a youngster these were great, blissful days which I look back on with much fondness.
For me it’s the pancakes which trigger these memories. My brother has this picture in his dental surgery in Blackheath, so I do wonder if maybe his 3-D artwork of Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix is Phil’s version of Nostalgic Pancakes which remind him of those halcyon days. Maybe you should ask him when you pop in for that whitening treatment.
The bittersweet ending to these stories is that Asterix (which to avoid being sued later called itself Astrix and then Le Shop) has now totally disappeared and is currently a Mexican eatery called Azteca. As far as I can tell, although The Place to Eat does still exist inside some branches of John Lewis, the pancake house is also long gone. For some reason I have never been tempted to go to crêperies since, although when in France I always gravitate towards them.
I would love to have taken my own kids to Asterix le véritable crêperie (yes, its full name had the wrong gender). They would have loved the pancakes there, and definitely the ice cream. I guess I will have to keep up my own pancake making. This year my home made pancakes even managed to pass the GHT (Grumpy Hubby Test) and were declared ‘not bad’ – though they would not have passed the Asterix chef’s test. As I say every Pancake Day, I really must make them more often than once a year. By the way, despite loving that sinfully sweet Golden Syrup, my favourite combo topping now is lemon and sugar as then it’s never too sickly.