What do eel sandwiches, Karl Marx and Marco Pierre White have in common? They were all, at some point, key contributions to the history of the building now known as Quo Vadis, which occupies four consecutive townhouses on Dean Street in the heart of London’s Soho.
While operating as a restaurant for almost a century, the story of Quo Vadis begins long before it saw life as a dining establishment. Occupying numbers 26-29 Dean Street, it is an arresting space from the exterior, even to an uninformed eye. The stately building dates back to the 1730s (with the exception of number 29, which is believed to have been built in the late 1600s) and played host to a number of families and intriguing characters throughout its life.
Karl Marx and his family occupied one of the upper floors of number 28 between 1851 and 1856, when the building was described as an ‘old hovel’ by one of their visitors. You wouldn’t guess it in the present day – Quo Vadis is now one of the great dames of Soho, embracing its storied past in the most elegant of ways.
The restaurant’s original proprietor, Peppino Leoni, arrived in London from Italy in 1914, working a series of hospitality roles before opening Quo Vadis in 1926. The restaurant quickly took off, attracting a crowd of glamorous Londoners, and leading to its expansion into the neighbouring townhouses by the mid 1930s.
A promotional booklet of Quo Vadis recipes, distributed by Leoni in 1926, reads “First the artists and authors and members of other professions came to Quo Vadis and found that with each visit their fastidious taste was more completely satisfied, and so the fame of Leoni’s Quo Vadis spread to diplomatic and social circles. Today this serene, cheerful and artistic spot in the heart of London is a meeting place for epicures of every distinguished class.”
Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library
A famed restaurateur, Leoni was known for his joyous behaviour. Current Quo Vadis owner Eddie Hart very aptly described him as a “shameless self-publicist [who was] always entertaining Lord and Lady Muck.” A write-up of Leoni by a frequent customer, published in that same promotional booklet, puts the restaurant’s success firmly down to Leoni and a policy that is supposedly verbatim from the man himself and includes treating every customer the same regardless of whether they’re spending a shilling or five pounds, giving “people a quiet and happy atmosphere in which to enjoy their meals and train your staff to serve them without fuss” and building “a reputation for specialties; dishes that bring people to you because they cannot get them elsewhere as you serve them”.
That we are placed in a kitchen in the basement of a building that’s been home to a restaurant for 100 years is really quite extraordinary
In his autobiography, Leoni wrote about the discovery of some documents during the redecoration described as “mostly exercise books, full of scribblings in some foreign language.” At the time, unaware of the building’s infamous former resident, Leoni said to get rid of them. By the time his architect filled him in on the history, it was too late: the documents were gone.
Leoni’s commitment to making Quo Vadis a raucous house of frivolity seems fitting, though, given the restaurant’s present-day reputation which can be greatly attributed to its larger than life and immensely talented head chef, Jeremy Lee.
“Darling, it’s an absolute honour,” he says, breezing into the room. Despite not having had the good fortune of meeting Lee before, he greets me like an old friend, immediately drawing me into the fold. It’s exactly how I imagine Leoni would have been, embracing each diner like an old friend and treating the space like a home away from home in the heart of Soho. In this vein, including many others, Lee himself contributes to the continuation of the kind of place Quo Vadis was always destined to be.
“That we are placed in a kitchen in the basement of a building that’s been home to a restaurant for 100 years is really quite extraordinary,” Lee tells me. “That this place actually even existed, I mean, it’s remarkable that it’s survived all this time. It is a testament to its really splendid origins, in this tiny area called Soho which was this very odd little den of iniquity.”
These days, Quo Vadis is a restaurant and separate members’ club, the latter taking up the entire first floor of the building and arguably the larger, grander space. Lee talks about the importance of the building not being “locked away from the public eye” as many members’ clubs in Soho are. There is, however, something deliciously ironic about this being the case in the former home of Karl Marx, and while some may see the exclusivity as problematic, Quo Vadis is as welcoming to the visiting diner as it is the regularly returning member.
“Quo Vadis is a legacy,” says Lee. “Depending on how you look at it; it's either a dining room with a private members’ club attached, or it's a private members’ club with a restaurant attached. We’re having a foot in each camp, which I think is quite amazing.”
Whether upstairs or down, to dine at Quo Vadis is to eat well. The building has a storied air, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that if the walls could talk they would have some enviable stories to tell. The food pays homage to its former life as an Italian restaurant, but anchors itself firmly in Britain, partly thanks to Lee’s Scottish heritage and his time at some of the capital’s most defining restaurants – including a lengthy stint at Bibendum.
That is not to say the restaurant is some temple to typical British food (or, as Lee puts it, the “steak and kidney pie brigade”). “We take enormous influence from the regional cooking throughout Europe, and the world, really,” he tells me. “And then we have a very sort of quixotic British slant, you know, it’s absurd really. So for a very venerable old, historically Italian establishment, it has a very curiously British accent.”
Before Harts Group acquired the space (including setting up its head office upstairs) and appointed Lee at its helm, Quo Vadis had a few unfortunate stints under other ownership, never quite retaining the enthusiastic following it had when it was owned by Leoni. Now, though, it feels as if the restaurant has finally come full circle.
To see it under Lee and Harts Group is to see it as close to what it possibly was when Leoni stood within its walls, so similar do the two operators seem in their approach to hospitality. Lee greets every diner like a long-lost relative, he sees the restaurant as a space to come for everything from a languorous, hours-long meal to simply a snack and a drink and, crucially, he has created a number of dishes and a dining experience you simply cannot get elsewhere.
It seems he has studied Leoni’s policy in detail. Actress Evelyn Laye proclaimed of Quo Vadis in that same 1926 booklet: “There is no better place in the world to dine or lunch.” Nearly a century on and under entirely new ownership, that statement is, in many people’s eyes, undeniable.