“The stranger will probably be disappointed at his first visit to the Strand,” wrote Charles Dickens in his 1879 Dictionary of London. “And in truth the houses which line it are for the most part unworthy of its position as a portion of the greatest thoroughfare in London.”
Today, while most of the shops, restaurants and great houses that once lined the Strand may have gone, many might still agree with Dickens’ sentiment. The “noble thoroughfare” he hoped the Strand would become, has instead been subsumed by a welter of Pret-a-Mangers and other chain stores.
Salieri, the last family-run restaurant, could soon be forced to move. The owner says the landlord, Aviva Investors, has put the building up for sale. The restaurant, which opened in 1976, has dodged eviction once this year but questions remain over how long it can remain at number 376, The Strand.
“This has happened time and time again on the Strand,” said Ozsen Sami, daughter of the owner, Sonmez Sami. “We’re not the first family-run business to go through this — and once you’re out you can never outbid a chain.” Aviva declined to comment.
Originally, the street, which runs from Trafalgar Square, traced the path of the river Thames — “strond” meant riverside in an older version of English — and was home to the great mansions of the aristocracy. Somerset House — home of the Dukes of Somerset — still overlooks the Thames close to Waterloo Bridge, but the original Tudor Palace has since been replaced by a Neoclassical building designed by Sir William Chambers in 1776.
The aristocracy deserted the area in favour of the West End in the 17th century, and the Strand became a popular meeting place for artists and writers in the abundant coffee shops and taverns that sprang up along the 1,200m thoroughfare.
Twinings opened as a tea shop in 1706 and remains today at 216, The Strand.
To the west, the Savoy Hotel, built by theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, opened its doors in 1889. It has played host to both Oscar Wilde and Bertie Wooster, PG Wodehouse’s fictional toff.
While much has changed over the years, Norman Murphy, author of several books on both Wodehouse and London, said the creator of Jeeves would still recognise much of the street.
“Rhodesia House, now Zimbabwe House, still has its nude male figures which caused uproar when Jacob Epstein did them in 1907-08,” Mr Murphy said. “The enormous trolleys of beef are still pushed around Simpson’s to allow customers to indicate which cut they want, and the Savoy is still there with its gas lamp marking Carting Lane.”
Yet the pressures of rising rents and the conversion of many commercial premises to flats have combined to push smaller businesses, like Salieri, not just out of the area, but out of central London altogether.
“The planning system has failed small and micro businesses by allowing this situation to happen,” said Sue Terpilowski, London policy chairman at the Federation of Small Businesses.
Planners need to consider the financial, social and intellectual as well as the cultural needs of the community, said James Berkeley, managing director of Elite Consulting, which advises wealthy families.
“I think there’s excessive focus on the financial, possibly to the detriment of [the others] in certain areas,” he said.
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