Yesterday I joined three former colleagues at Reuters for lunch at El Vino, a venerable old Fleet Street wine bar which, according to our rough calculations, we’ve collectively patronized for an estimated 120 years.
We sometimes spend a few moments – but only a few – wondering why. The place doesn’t appear to have been decorated since the Second World War (though it’s possible it has been, perhaps using antiqued paint and wallpaper in clever replication of decades of nicotine staining). The service usually ranges from haphazard to hapless. None of us has ever been offered a drink on the house. I once mentioned this to the then manager, a lugubrious beanpole named Daniel.
“Not once, in forty years, has El Vino bought me a drink,” I complained loudly after paying an unusually large lunchtime bill. “And I don’t suppose we ever will,” was the blunt reply.
But for all its decrepitude, and management’s lofty disdain for the clients, or more likely because of those things, we’re drawn to the place like moths to a lamp. Like a favourite old shoe, El Vino is familiar and comfortable.
In Fleet Street’s heyday, between the War and the 1980s, El Vino’s (as it is erroneously but universally known) teemed with journalists, both at lunchtimes and in the evenings. For many patrons the interval between the two sessions was merely the time it took to pop round the corner to their offices to pick up messages and back. Some could often be heard dictating copy over the telephone at the front of the bar. The phone was often employed in the reverse direction by editors looking for missing reporters. “No, I don’t see him here,” was the usual response, and usually untrue.
A few of the old regulars have been memorialised with little brass plates on the bar.
When I first went there, the manager was a large, ruddy man named Frank Bowers, who invariably wore a bow tie and multi-coloured waistcoats. He was widely despised, largely because of his overbearing manner, but also because he made a habit of chucking customers out on the flimsiest pretext. Often this was no more than Bowers declaring, “I don’t like the look of you.”
El Vino achieved national notoriety, post-Bowers, by refusing to serve a group of women at the front bar. Contrary to legend, ladies were not barred from the place altogether but were ‘encouraged’ by the owners to sit in the dining area at the back of the shop, where a waiter would serve them, a practice almost until then dutifully observed. The leader of the group – as it happens an American and so perhaps inordinately sensitive to such acts of discrimination – sued and won, though only after the House of Lords had reversed the decision of a lower court judge who considered management’s stance a “well-intentioned courtesy” rather than gender bias.
Only in the last decade or so has El Vino’s dress code been relaxed to welcome men without a tie and women wearing trousers. Mobile phones were disallowed until a few years ago. Management’s capitulation to modernity is now total.
The journalists are long gone, of course, scattered to various points around the capital, a diaspora prompted by Rupert Murdoch’s famous 1985 coup in moving his four titles to the Docklands. Women are seen there occasionally rather than regularly.
My friends and I thus find ourselves, at our customary corner table, rarely-seen veterans of Fleet Street’s glory days.
El Vino should cherish us. Brass plates all round, I say, but not for a few years.