Those of you who, like me, are fans of pimentos de Padrón, really good Ibérico ham or a brisk chilled sherry, will have been as happy (and greedy) as I am to see the Spanish and Spanish-inspired restaurants and bars springing up like setas all over the UK. Spanish food has been the next big thing for a few years now (so really more like the last, or last-but-one big thing?), and at the time of writing, TripAdvisor was listing about 250 Spanish restaurants in England alone, from Cumbria to Cornwall. But the UK’s Spanish restaurant culture goes back further than we might think…
While footling about on Ebay recently, I came across a series of sepia-tinged postcards (and one technicolour one, above) showing a rather elegant set of rooms belonging to the ‘Martinez Spanish Restaurant of 25 Swallow Street, London.’ Intrigued, I bought the lot (it’s a compulsion, what can I say…) and did a little digging, much of it in the disgustingly addictive British Newspaper Archive. And it seems that the Martinez Spanish Restaurant was rather high profile back in the 1920s and 1930s, not least because it was a firm favourite of prominent Spanish visitors to London, among them both King Alfonso XIII and his successor, General Franco.
The restaurant was named for its owner, Antonio Martinez, who seems to have been both a self-made man and a remarkable networker. Martinez was born in Spain in around 1887 and came to England as a young man, working as a hotel waiter in Bournemouth (the 1911 census has him, age 24, at 42 Norwich Avenue) and, according to later newspaper reports, as a window cleaner. In 1923, he established his restaurant at 25 Swallow Street, a picturesque little lane at the Piccadilly end of Regent Street, and just three years later, he received a Royal appointment from his regular client, King Alfonso, who according to the Sunday Post, ‘regards him as an old friend, and never fails to pay him a visit’ (18 Jul. 1926). Alfonso’s regular visits were enthusiastically reported each summer in the UK press, as in 1928 when the Evening Telegraph noted that:
It is a curious experience for a European King to lunch at a London west-end restaurant without the slightest fuss or even an equerry in the offing. King Alfonso likes to encourage anything Spanish. Just off Regent Street is a Spanish restaurant run by an excellent host, and here, with a party of five Spanish friends, the King took lunch and greatly enjoyed himself. He was dressed just like the average British business man, sat at the head of a little table ablaze with carnations, talked with vivacity to his neighbours, Senorita de Vellaraja and the Duke de Miranda (13 Jul. 1928).
Just eight years later, the man who was to replace the King as Spain’s head of state was also to be found dining at Swallow Street, as the Catholic Herald reported in a 1955 review of his first full-length biography:
General Franco … visited London in 1936 as representative of the Spanish Army, of which he was then chief, at the funeral of King George V, who was Honorary Colonel of the 8th (Zamora) Regiment … (Franco) took his meals at the Martinez Spanish restaurant in Swallow Street, off Piccadilly …’
The restaurant was extensively refurbished between 1937-1939, which is when the set of advertising postcards in the gallery above were issued. Centred around the Ronda Room, ‘decorated in every detail to suggest the warmth and brightness of sunny Spain’ and incorporating an ‘Andalusian fountain,’ it also boasted an Andalusian Sherry Lounge set up as ‘a replica of a rich Don’s patio in Romantic Seville’, and the Castilla Banqueting Room, for formal dinners, with ‘a pleasant and individual scheme of Spanish decoration – that of a hall in Old Castile.’
While the postcards give a flavour of the restaurant’s decor, it’s proved rather more difficult to find out what dishes diners might have enjoyed. A peculiar little short story, ‘Sweeter than Honey’ by one Arthur Applin, published in the Evening Telegraph in 1938, has its protagonist ordering the rather Gallic ‘chicken en casserole and a bottle of pommard,’ while ‘[watching] half a dozen couples dancing on a floor the size of a billiard table’ (1 Mar. 1938). Meanwhile, an undated A la Carte menu I found on an internet auction site combines now-familiar Spanish dishes, such as ‘Spanish smoked ham’ (with or without melon), and tortilla (aka ‘Omelette with Potatoes and Onions’) with typical British dishes based largely on cocktail sauce. A copy of the Table d’hote menu from January 1972 includes similarly domesticated dishes like ‘cream soup’ (missing the celery that’s specified in the Spanish version), and Canalonis Catalana that lose their regional affiliation in the English column, alongside ‘Trifle Maison’ and the intriguingly named ‘Cassata Denise,’ which seems to have been a kind of ice cream with frangipane.*
Antonio Martinez ran his eponymous restaurant until his death in 1951 at the age of 64. It continued on the same site for another thirty years, its status as a little piece of Spain in London confirmed by a Jak cartoon in the London Evening Standard during the Gibraltar controversy of 1983, in which a group of elderly British naval officers are denied entry at the door by a stout and determined Spanish waiter.** The company was finally wound up in 1988, and in a cute twist of fate, the site is now occupied by the swanky Argentinean-style restaurant Gaucho Piccadilly (above left).
Martinez Spanish Restaurant was a pioneer of Spanish dining in London; it might even have been the UK’s first ever Spanish restaurant, although I’m very happy to be contradicted on that. And given that it survived for almost sixty years, there must be plenty of people left who remember dining there – if that includes you, I’d love to hear from you! In the meantime, I’m using those menus to plan some fieldwork. In my kitchen. With a bucketload of cocktail sauce and some glacé cherries…
** I don’t have copyright clearance to include the cartoon on this website, but you can see it at the British Cartoon Archive.