If you ever find yourself in the clubroom at Quo Vadis, see if you can spot Where’s Wally. It’s easy to miss him in the throng of illustrator John Broadley’s all-of-human-life-is-here Soho mural. This is Soho in the old, sexy, seedy, teeming, barrow-boy and vice-girl days, before Tesco and Pizza Express opened on Dean Street. Punters loiter outside Madame Jojo’s, muffin men carry trays on their heads, sailors make the most of a day’s shore leave, a pearly king shows his calves in white tights. Algerian coffee shops compete for custom with pubs, bookshops and girls with feather fans. A preacher fumes from an upstairs window, but no one is listening. Soho characters from different decades and centuries jostle and haggle over fruit in Berwick Street market and Hans Sloane promises the finest chocolate. Wally may not be known for flamingo jazz and dancing girls, but he’s there, included among the hundreds of figures at the request of one of Broadley’s young sons.
It’s very much the Broadley way to mix styles: frock coats and wigs from old engravings thrown in with Edmund Gorey poodles and Where’s Wally. It makes him the ideal partner in culinary crime to Quo Vadis’s chef Jeremy Lee. Follow Lee on Instagram and you’ll find him quoting Marlene Dietrich on cakes one minute and posting 16th century still lives of pears the next. Clippings from Vogue alternate with oysters, greengages, Cinderella-worthy pumpkins and Friday’s fish ’n’ chips. When I meet Broadley for breakfast at Quo Vadis, Lee settles us at a table, then waves cheerio with: ‘I’m off to buy a ham and cake decorations — don’t laugh.’
Broadley has to be quick with his inkpot to keep up. The illustrator and chef have been working together since 2012, when Broadley was brought in by Quo Vadis major domo Julian Roberts to illustrate the menus, which change daily. ‘You’re not illustrating the food itself but an idea,’ says Broadley. ‘So the egg on the breakfast menu is Humpty Dumpty.’ Humpty, licking his lips as yolk spills from his own cracked crown, is attended by toast soldiers with ‘Q’ and ‘V’ on their helmets. In the middle of the menu is a Heath Robinson-style ‘automated breakfast machine’ doling out eggs, bacon and sausages with an ingenious system of pulleys and bellows.
A recent lunch menu has ‘Cyrano de Celeriac’ sniffing root vegetables with his long connoisseur’s nose, while Irish rock oysters shiver nervously, like John Tenniel’s victims in Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter. An inky tabby cat licks whipped cream spilled on the pudding menu. There is a fizzy-pop energy to Broadley’s illustrations, and the menus, dated for each day’s service, become keepsakes for anniversary and birthday meals. Sometimes, Broadley admits, he has to look up words on the menu. Salsify, chervil and purslane are Jeremy Lee favourites. You can order ‘kickshaws’ with your Campari, if you know what they are. A tempting little something — from the French ‘quelque chose’. Say it aloud to get ‘kickshaw’.
There are clubs in Mayfair and St James’s serving grouse in season, and boarding-school treacle puddings, and Sandhurst helpings of beef and potatoes, and clubs in Covent Garden and Shoreditch mixing cunning cocktails and green juices. But it’s Quo Vadis that does the best club-grub in London: the best onglet steak, the best ox liver and onions, the best fish pie. Its smoked eel sandwich is indecently good: like a kiss from a sexy Cockney fishmonger. Turn up at ten to ten after a West End play and they’ll do you a Poire William and a pudding in the restaurant downstairs. Try the almond tart with caramelised pears, sloes, custard, ice cream and cream. When Broadley draws the cat that gets the cream, she really gets the cream.
Broadley is not a foodie. He confesses that the only restaurant he’d ever been to before Quo Vadis was the French House at the other end of Dean Street. He grew up in Huddersfield, studied graphic design at Liverpool Polytechnic, then moved to London. He can cook, ‘but nothing fancy. I can do savoury stuff, but I’m useless at baking.’ He draws like a demon, though. Anarchic, snook-cocking drawings with irrepressible mischief and spirit. He looks for inspiration in nooks and corners: antique markets, old record shops, the bookshops on Charing Cross road, punk fanzines, the newspapers he snips up for his job on the night shift at a press cuttings agency. ‘If you just trawl the internet,’ he says, ‘you end up getting what everybody else has got. That’s why I like finding things on the off-chance.’
He’s prolific. There are the ever-changing menus, the dozens of little private press books he prints each year, the cheese plates, stilton jars and celery jugs he’s designed for the Fine Cheese Company, and more than 100 illustrations and chapter initials he drew for a new Phaidon edition of Christopher Hibbert’s The Story of England. It is a sumptuous and witty book. Broadley was driven half-mad by some of the more detailed drawings. He had Twin Peaks on in the background for company as he worked, and went ‘quietly insane’. He finished nine months’ work on The Story of England and started straight away on the Soho mural, an even more intricate and ambitious project.
He mourns Soho as it was: ‘I really miss a lot of the bookshops I used to go to which have been boarded over. Even Charing Cross Road has dwindled. A lot of the edginess has gone. It would be nice if Berwick Street Market filled out a bit more. It used to be a real throng.’ In his mural it still is. Soho as it should be — riotous, chaotic, lewd and untameable, a hotpot of revellers, tarts and bawds. A place where anyone, even Where’s Wally, can lose themselves in the night and the crowd.