In the heart of London’s theatre district, one woman has been serving customers for more than 70 years and she’s still going. Elena Salvoni is heralded as the unofficial Queen of Soho, greeting a loyal, and famous fan base once a month for lunch.
I was desperate to find out the secret behind all those years of fine service, so went along to one of Elena’s lunches. It’s 12.30 on a Wednesday, and 91-year old Elena Salvoni is working front of house at Little Italy in Soho, the heart of London’s theatre district. After seven decades of service, Elena’s as much an institution as the restaurants she’s worked at. She’s served the seedy, the up and coming, and the theatre establishment. And every second Wednesday, many of her famous fans still gather to be greeted and seated by Elena.
She’s busy organising tables, making sure singles are well-looked after, and catching up with old customers, but manages to find a few minutes to share the story of how she first got into the restaurant trade.
“I left school at 14 and I went to work as a seamstress. I was already making clothes for friends and I said I was really desperate. The girls were working in a cafe around the corner and they said, ‘All the boys have gone off to war. They’ve got to employ women. So I went to see the boss and I got the job.”
She’s been at it ever since and after thirty years, moved on to a restaurant named for her, called Elena’s Etoile. When management decided Elena should retire, her old boss at Bianchi’s, (now called Little Italy) re-installed Elena to host lunches for old regulars and newcomers. It’s been a win-win for both Elena and the restaurant, with anywhere from 60 people, to over 100 attending, including many famous names from the West End who Elena has known since their starving artist days.
“I’ve worked here 30 years and have known almost all of these customers from when they were all struggling. Even when they became famous, they’re still coming, like John Hurt. I’ve known John Hurt for so many years.”
The restaurant’s close proximity to London’s legendary Ronnie Scott’s jazz club helped bring Elena big name patrons.
“Have you told them about Ella Fitzgerald, your great friend Ella?” one of Elena’s patrons asks. “Oh, Ella, at Ronnie Scotts...I used to take pasta over to her...fettuccine alla crema. And she used to say, ‘Elena, I shouldn’t eat all that. Can you share it?’ Oh, I’ve had a rich life.”
And theatre greats like producer Cameron Mackintosh, known best for Phantom of the Opera and Les Mis, credits Elena with keeping him and countless others well-fed during the lean years.
“To come and see Elena is always a great pleasure. I’ve been to this room since I was 18 years of age when, like many people in the West End and the theatre, none of us had any money, Elena, who used to manage this place, used to find out how much money you had and then direct you to what you could afford on the menu and ply you with endless free rolls and butter and fill yourself up on the rolls and butter and then you’d get whatever she could secret out of the kitchen. And I don’t think our business would be afloat if it wasn’t for her generosity and her brilliance at spotting the fine talent even if they couldn’t pay their way.”
Actress Maureen Lipman joins the table of Elena’s old girls who make the lunches a tradition, waxing nostalgic about her maternal instinct for them.
“When I lost my husband, after a few years, I met a man and I thought the first thing I have to do is take him into Elena to have him vetted.”
Similar dating stories were told countless times as Elena’s customers recalled their years together.
David Read sits on the board of London’s Academy of Food and Wine and explains why Elena is held in such high esteem.
“She’s definitely a role model. I think it’s her Italian descent that perhaps brings out that passion for service in a way perhaps the British don’t. But actually, she’s become an icon in the industry now. She’s become almost like the Queen Mother. The whole industry sees her as the pinnacle of achievement.”
But it’s more than her Italian background at work. I ask Elena the secret to her success.
“I love people. I like being around people. They come in the door, you’ve gotta be there. Even if it’s not your station, just acknowledge them, and when they leave, you’ve gotta be there to say goodnight. Never ignore them. You must think of it that you’re inviting people into your home.”
Judging by the warm smiles in the crowded room, it’s hard to know who enjoys the lunches more...Elena or her loyal patrons.