You can discover historical landmarks in London, but you can trip over them just as easily. I have travelled to London many times, and have eaten lunch there just as many times.
By chance, I have discovered that some of the restaurant I visited, with the single-minded purpose of satisfying my hunger, held much more significance than their current use suggested at the time. Here is a list of those whose history I know, so far.
1. 84 Charing Cross Road, West End WC2H 0BA
This location is found between Soho and Covent Garden, but is just as easily found in a book, on a stage, or on a screen. Charing Cross Road area used to be the main base for antiquarian booksellers, including the Marks & Co bookshop. Its chief buyer, Frank Doel, received an enquiry from Helene Hanff, unable to find some obscure books and British literature in her home city of New York. A long-distance friendship developed through their correspondence, later collected by Hanff into the book “84 Charing Cross Road” – in the film version, Hanff and Doel would be played by Anne Bancroft and Antony Hopkins. Marks & Co closed in 1970, and while a plaque marks its history, its space has been absorbed into number 82, which has been three different restaurants in ten years – Léon de Bruxelles, Med Kitchen, and now McDonald’s. Perhaps the location needed a predictable business, just like “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” playing at the Palace Theatre across the road.
2. 49 King's Rd, Chelsea SW3 4ND
The rounded window frames on this McDonald’s location are the only indication that this building used to be far more radical in both design and use – the Chelsea Drugstore, opened in the late 1960s, had a façade of tavertine limestone, brushed steel, and round windows, and was a kind of counterculture retail centre, housing a record shop, chemist, cafés and other concessions, inspired by a similar centre in Paris. It also had a home delivery service, operated by women in purple catsuits on motorcycles. We have documentary evidence of how the centre looked, because it was used in the film “A Clockwork Orange,” when Alex meets two women in the record shop. Closing towards the end of the 1980s, it has now been open as a McDonald’s longer than as the Chelsea Drugstore, which is also referenced in a Rolling Stones song – however, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is now more likely because the milkshake machine is broken again.
3. 9 Gracechurch Street, City of London EC3V 0DR
“The Crosse Keys” is part of the Wetherspoon chain of pub-restaurants, which specialises in converting buildings from other uses, and seemingly, the more ornate the better – being in the City of London, the Crosse Keys was originally a highly-appointed company headquarters, built in 1913, full of stained glass and marble. It uses the name of an inn that once stood nearby, which dated from before the Great Fire of London (although it was rebuilt following it). Tim Martin, Wetherspoon’s founder, is a fervent advocate of a no-deal Brexit, which makes the building’s original occupants rather ironic. The Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation, now known as HSBC Holdings plc, is a bank founded following the First Opium War, after which the UK colonised Hong Kong. The London building was originally an outpost, but after years of change, and growth, including their buying the old Midland Bank, their headquarters are now found in Canary Wharf, and their latest set of advertisements, titled “We are Not an Island”, were criticised for being anti-Brexit, instead of noticing how international Britain really is.
4. 105–107 Charing Cross Road, West End WC2H 0BP
This one turned out to be less impressive than I expected. “The Montagu Pyke” is another Wetherspoon pub, this time taking its name from the man that first owned the building, which opened as a cinema in 1911. However, it is more well-known as the location of the Marquee Club, which was open from 1958 to 1996, and hosted performances from David Bowie, Roxy Music, Pink Floyd, the Sex Pistols, Jimi Hendrix, The Clash, The Jam, Genesis and Prince. However, the Marquee Club first opened at 165 Oxford Street (demolished, now a bank, but not HSBC), and moved in 1964 to 90 Wardour Street (now apartments). It only moved to Charing Cross Road in 1988, by which point is featured more heavy metal-based acts like Metallica, Kiss and Dream Theater. Perhaps it is better to focus on the new theatre being built up the road.