Ah, Wong Kei. With your grand theatrical exterior, your baleful ‘welcome’ and your bargain, excellent Chinese food. For generations of lone diners, this has been the central London restaurant of choice. The ground floor is entirely given over to solo eaters – no eyebrow raises here when you say ‘table for one,’ and there’s no need to pretend to read as you tangle with your chopsticks – you can join a gang of (mostly male) fellow diners sitting in companionable silence and gazing mournfully into the middle distance as they chow down on prawn in black bean sauce, stuffed bean curd or oysters with ginger and spring onion.
The vast 500-seater institution changed hands in 2014, and staff now wear branded Wong Kei T-shirts, and are less likely to shout at diners if they ask for a fork or query the bill. The service style is minimalistic – don’t try asking for a table with a view of the swinging red lanterns over Wardour Street, don’t ask your waiter to expand on the different dishes on the voluminous menu and don’t expect to pay by card.
Because noone wants Wong Kei to go changing too much. Their eel with bitter melon and brusque approach are as much a part of central London’s history as the fanciful Baroque/Art Nouveau building, whose foundation stone was laid by Sarah Bernhardt. It’s a miracle that this tall edifice survived, as for 35 years it housed theatrical wig maker, costumier and insurance fraudster Willy Clarkson – eleven of the twelve buildings he occupied burned down. (In a downright weird footnote, Clarkson is said to have helped disguise Jack the Ripper, and to have assisted in the 1910 Dreadnought Hoax, dressing the young Virginia Woolf as a bearded Abyssinian.)
A wrought-iron clock on the exterior immortalises this dodgy ‘Costumier – Perruquier’. Inside, under wooden dioramas of floating Oriental maids, endless cups of free Chinese tea are served. And lonely diners have a corner of London that’s forever theirs.
Wong Kei, 41-43 Wardour St, London W1D 6PY