There's something irresistibly romantic about Café Daquise, the Polish restaurant in South Kensington that has just re-opened after being gutted by a fire last September. Its elderly patrons may not be much to look at, with their Borscht-stained teeth and moth-eaten cardigans, but nearly all of them played a part in the anti-Communist struggle that eventually liberated Poland--and the rest of Eastern Europe--from Soviet tyranny in 1989. Indeed, at one point Café Daquise was the unofficial headquarters of Edward Raczynski, the Polish President-in-Exile from 1979-86.
"The old generation are not very mobile any more, but they're still coming," says Jola Pinchard, the manageress of 13 years. "They come for the food--and because it's not very expensive."
It certainly isn't. I had a very decent set lunch for £7.50. It even included a glass of wine, though I'd advise anyone thinking of visiting Café Daquise not to inquire about the vintage. I made the mistake of asking my waitress whether there was any choice about the wine that came with the meal. "Yes," she replied, giving me a withering look. "You can choose between red or white."
Café Daquise first threw open its doors in 1947 and, by the looks of it, very little has changed in the intervening 59 years. Tables covered in plastic tablecloths still sit on a linoleum floor and the walls are still decorated with Polish bric-a-brac. When the whole place went up in flames four months ago, the owners used the insurance money to create an exact replica of the original restaurant.
"Our customers don't like change," explains the manageress. "At one point we decided it would be nice to play a bit of classical music in the background, but one of our regulars got up a petition to complain about it and that was the end of that."
Perhaps they should have played the theme from The Ipcress File instead. Café Daquise's main claim to fame, apart from being London's first Polish restaurant, is that it was where Christine Keeler met regularly with Yevgeny Ivanov, the senior naval attaché at the Russian Embassy. If she ever passed on any military secrets gleaned from her pillow talk with John Profumo, this is where she would have done it.
Rather surprisingly, on the afternoon I was there the other diners weren't exclusively octogenarians. Since Poland joined the EU in 2004, Café Daquise has become a home-away-from home for a new generation of Polish ex-pats, most of them eager to sample the authentic cuisine. The menu at Café Daquise boasts such classics as salted fillet herring, stuffed cabbage and potato pancakes--all of them very reasonably priced.
My meal consisted of a large bowl of chicken noodle soup, followed by Brittany beans and kielbasa in a spicy tomato sauce accompanied by two scoops of mashed potato. It wasn't an epicurean feast, but it wasn't half bad, either. If I'd been a migrant worker on my lunch break from toiling on a building site this would have been just the thing to fortify me against the cold winter's day.
Café Daquise is situated to the rear of South Kensington tube and, at one point, it looked as though it might fall victim to a redevelopment proposal. A £110 scheme designed by architect Terry Farrell was submitted to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for planning permission in 2003 and, had it gone ahead, the entire block in which the tube station is located would have been demolished. Fortunately, the application was withdrawn and Café Daquise still stands, a monument to Britain's historic role as a centre of international political intrique.