THE BLOG

A Star Among Soho Cafes

02/10/2014 17:10 BST | Updated 02/12/2014 10:59 GMT

The greeting from his corner "office" was always the same, loud and cheery. "Hello young man!" Hardly the long-haired 14-year-old who first walked through the doors of his establishment in the early 1970s, I nonetheless remained a young man forever to the irrepressible proprietor of Soho's legendary Star Cafe, the late, much-loved and much-missed Mario Forte.

Even at nearly 80, Mario was at his corner table every day of the week, an instantly recognisable figure with his mop of white hair and his "uniform" of black shirt and braces, working away at his accounts, greeting the regulars, and rising frequently - less so as he grew older and increasingly stooped - to come over and share some appalling joke.

"Did you hear about the fellow who woke up on the floor of his local, dragged himself a couple of miles home, and just managed to haul himself into bed before passing out again? The next morning he apologised to his missus for getting so drunk. 'Drunk?', she says. 'You were so smashed you managed to leave your wheelchair in the pub.'"

That was a typical Mario-ism - delivered with way more relish than the joke deserved while you were perusing the dishes on the menu, several named after the regulars (a bowl of porridge and fruit bearing the name of a top London agent, an advertising fella's name appended in possessory fashion to smoked salmon and scrambled eggs).

While the Star was a major haunt of film people (Mike Leigh was a regular there, among many other familiar faces), its only real nod to movies was the name of one ridiculously colossal breakfast - "The Termineator" - and the posters for movies like Cagney's The Public Enemy and Mae West's She Done Him Wrong, which were mixed in with old tin advertising signs on the wood-panelled walls.

That latter film was made the same year that The Star first opened its doors. Mario's dad, Ambrose, first rented the building on Great Chapel Street in 1933, and it remains (now as a freehold) in the family to this day. Mario's daughter Julia runs it as The London Gin Club in the evenings, and while the cafe closed after Mario's death in May, the club, with its superb selection of gins from around the world, goes from strength to strength.

For years the Star was my canteen, when I worked as a journalist at Screen International, whose office at the time was directly opposite (in its place these days, a very large hole in the ground where the Crossrail is being built). I must have done hundreds of interviews over industrial strength cups of tea, mostly in the submarine-like basement which I preferred to the airier upstairs, not least for the mumsy-like presence of a wonderfully jolly, bespectacled Irish waitress who the word "bustle" might have been invented for.

Mario had just taken over the management of the Star from his dad when I first wandered in, as a wide-eyed kid new to Soho (my sister worked as a secretary at Paramount on Wardour Street). I can vividly remember nearly being knocked over by the frantic couriers pushing trolleys heaving with cans of film from one screening room to another, and being overwhelmed by the energy and, of course, the sheer lewdness of Soho in that era. As my friend John Hegarty reminded me the other day, never was Truth in Advertising demonstrated more vividly than the bouncer who stood outside one joint on Greek Street mouthing three words, all day and all night: "Naked Girls. Dancing". And that was just one of the dozens of strip clubs, sex shops and porn cinemas that still filled this tiny but vibrant square mile at the time.

Over the years, the Star always felt like a little oasis in our frantic neighbourhood, and Mario, who started working in the cafe when he was just 16, was always a kind of benign Godfather figure. In at the start of the Soho Society, established to hold back and monitor the relentless development which threatened to obliterate the character of the place in the '70s (sound familiar?), he had fingers in more than just the Star's pies, organising football matches for Soho waiters and office staff, and playing a critical role in events such as the Soho Festival (he established the hilarious waiter's race, where staff from local restaurants raced around the streets trying not to spill a bottle of champagne and two glasses on a tray. Accompanied by a relentless barrage of shattering glass, the race was resurrected for the first time in many years at the recent Soho Village Fete, in memory of the great man.)

Part of his job, Mario felt, was to link up the many people who came to the Star on a regular basis, and only a month or so before he left us, he was giving me the number of a diner who had access to funds in the Middle East.

In his last years, he battled constantly with Crossrail - the entire side of the street facing the Star was demolished for the new rail link, and business, inevitably, was badly affected. But Mario was a fighter, and even though the cafe often seemed rather deserted, he was determined to keep it open (this is a man who, even over the Christmas holidays, would come up to Soho from time to time "just to keep an eye on the place".)

Funnily enough, it's the quiet times I'll remember best, when over a late breakfast of egg and chips or an early lunch of a Guinness and beef pie, served in recent years by pretty and relentlessly solemn East European waitresses, Mario would rise from his "office" and sit down to shoot the breeze, flirt with your girlfriend, and tell you another dreadful but irresistible joke. He was one of those people who just make you feel better through spending time with them. I miss him more than words can say.