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  • Nick Lander
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  • Nick Lander
24 Mar 2016

This Thursday, instead of reaching into our archives as we usually do, we share this tribute to one of the most beloved characters on the London restaurant scene. See also this lovely film on YouTube. 

Elena Salvoni passed away on 20 March 2016, Palm Sunday fittingly for a devout Catholic, at the age of 95. Described by many as 'the Queen of Soho' or the 'doyenne of maîtresse d's', Elena – as she was known to everyone who knew her or worked alongside her – played a hugely important role in the success of my restaurant, L'Escargot, in the 1980s and in my appreciation of the importance of hospitality. 

We first met one Saturday lunchtime at Bianchi's, the Italian restaurant on Frith Street in Soho where she worked (most people assumed she had some interest in the business but she did not). I had just bought the lease on my new adventure and together with Tom Brent, my friend and the person who had introduced me to the site, decided to go and have a quick bowl of pasta there. That night we were planning to hold a party in the restaurant before the builders moved in on the Monday morning.

Elena and I got talking and I mentioned that we would be neighbours. She mentioned that she had never seen inside L'Escargot because it was open only when she was working, so I invited her to come over after she had finished that evening. She said that she would.

I remember her arriving with Aldo, her husband and true love, about 11 pm. The ground floor and kitchen were packed with my friends, and what most appealed to Elena was that everybody was so young. The Salvonis stayed for a few minutes and then left for the bus home as I discovered later.

Something must have clicked because over the coming months Elena decided that she would come and work with me. I am not sure what was the attraction. A new challenge for a woman in her mid 60s? The opportunity to work with the late Sue Miles whom Elena knew? Or was it that she just felt a great deal of sympathy for me in my first venture as an inexperienced restaurateur and took pity on me?

The precise reason will now remain a mystery but Elena quit Bianchi's around Easter 1981 (exactly 35 years ago) and then began to exert pressure, alongside myself and everyone else involved in the project, on the builders to complete their works so that she could be reunited with her customers as soon as possible. The opening day was 2 June 1981 - although the first few weeks' trading are best forgotten - and the amateur pictures here were taken at our 20th anniversary celebrations at her next and last billet, Elena's Etoile in Charlotte Street.

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With the aid of an excellent team - notably Nick Smallwood and Stephen Chamberlain on the floor and Martin Lam in the kitchen - L'Escargot found its feet. But I know only too well that in the first very difficult months it was only Elena's charm, smile and winning ways that kept many customers happy and in a mood to return.

Elena had grey hair, a wonderfully expressive face, a lovely smile but, most important to her success as she once explained to me, was her lack of height. She was only 5 ft (1.5 metres) tall and this, she believed, gave her a great advantage when she approached customers sitting at the table. There was no height difference between the customers and herself. 'We look each other straight in the eye', she once explained to me. 'I don't look down on them and they never have to look up at me. It's as simple as that.'

Petite she certainly was but there was a no-nonsense side to her as well. She understood the business. She appreciated that everyone, even in the more laid back 1980s, was under some kind of time pressure, and that once their orders had been taken, her role and that of all those who worked under her, was to ensure that their food was served as quickly and as well as possible, and that after that they must be left alone. She also ensured that their bill, often the work of her beloved Aldo at the cashier's desk, must be delivered to them as soon as they asked for it.

Elena was interested in everybody. She remembered everyone's faces but was less good on their surnames. Nevertheless, she was adept at knowing the professions that lay behind the names. This was of crucial importance as at noon every day Elena would arrive at the restaurant to look over the list of the 33 tables and the names of those who had booked. There then followed an anxious period during which Elena whizzed round the tables making sure that someone in the publishing world, for instance, was not sitting next to anyone else in that small but then highly influential field. Ditto TV producers, film makers, lawyers, actors and so on.

But what Elena really loved was the pleasure she derived from seeing people come in to eat during the various stages of their lives. To see two of them together as a 'courting couple', as Elena always referred to them, then married, then watching their children grow up, then finally welcoming the children in as adults at the beginning of their professional and family life was what she lived for. Nobody, however famous, gave her as much pleasure as this sequence of happy events.

And in this respect, Jancis and I, my sister Katie and her husband Mike, and my brother Richard and his wife Sarah were extremely fortunate to have known her so well. It may be my faulty memory, but I do believe that her years at L'Escargot were the happiest in her professional career. She was certainly highly valued there, and got on extremely well with Martin Lam and their friendship prospered long after I had to sell through ill health and both had left L'Escargot. She enjoyed the company of the many young people from all nationalities who came to work there. We have just come back from Sydney, where we saw Barry MacDonald, the New Zealander who started the highly successful Fratelli Fresh group there. He worked with her in 1982, was asking after her and reminiscing fondly about the time they spent working together.

L'Escargot became extremely successful and very busy, attracting a vast number of celebrities, most of whom appeared on the order slip simply as 'VIP', or with their names, not always correctly spelt. I recall one with the name Rita Tushington on it for the actress Rita Tushingham.

Most importantly, she became a great friend. She was there at our three family weddings, mine, my sister's and my brother's, and then in 2013 she came along to the lunch we held at our son's restaurant, The Quality Chop House, after the stone setting for our late mother. She arrived on the bus from the first-floor flat that she lived in for many years in Noel Road, Islington, and insisted on travelling back home by bus too.

The number 38 bus was how Elena came to and got home from L'Escargot, until I insisted that she take a taxi late at night. But it was on the bus that she caught up with her friends and the gossip. And I remember vividly one Monday morning when she arrived just before noon, slightly out of breath and distinctly worried. The reason soon became clear. The previous day we had hired out the whole restaurant to Sir Colin Callender so that his six-hour adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby could be screened in various rooms along with lots of food and wine. We had had to hire in a great deal of furniture on the proviso that this would all be collected by 11 am. It wasn't, and its presence inside our building was hampering the staff trying to get the restaurant ready for Monday lunchtime. So I told them to put the furniture out in front of the restaurant. This had been misinterpreted by someone passing by as a sign that the restaurant was being forced to close and this rumour had already reached Elena en route to work.

I will miss Elena. I went to visit her at her home – not as often as I should have – and my visit would follow the same pattern. I would ring her doorbell and then walk into the middle of the road. A couple of minutes later her face would appear from behind the lace curtain, her hair always perfect. She would smile and wave at me and then she would make her way slowly down the stairs and, a few minutes later, let me in. She would talk about Aldo, her equally diminutive husband of 60 years (pictured below with me at the 20th anniversary party) who had died in 2011; about her children, Adriana and Louie, and her numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren; and of her latest hobby, knitting scarves for sale to raise money for the homeless.

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Elena was very, very special. She was not a restaurateur – she had no interest in food, other than the Italian food she cooked for her family – and even less in wine. But she had an overwhelming interest in her customers, that they eat well, that they get on, and most importantly that they come back and see her. That very simple approach, and her radiant smile, I will never forget.