For a moment it felt we had been transported 2,000 miles away to a humussiya in Jerusalem.
The bare functional tables and chairs. The laminated menu and heaped platters being rushed to diners, seconds after ordering. The cheerful clatter from the serving counter and above all, the faultless helping of smooth hummus and falafel in front of me. Then the main course arrived and the reverie ended – it was a salt beef sandwich.
And just like that, Ashkenazi cuisine's greatest achievement lifted us across an ocean to a good old New York deli. I looked up from my plate, caught a glimpse of a Union Jack flag with a picture of Queen Elizabeth in the center, and remembered I was still in the West End of London.
The Queen, or more specifically her Diamond Jubilee celebrated two weeks ago, seems to have played a crucial role in the survival, at least for another year, of this venerable joint which has been fusing together the best of Israeli (and Palestinian) and Ashkenazi cooking for nearly 50 years. A few days ago, Cadogan Holdings informed Gaby Eliyahu, the owner of Gaby's Deli, founded 1965, that he could remain on the premises for another year, curing his beef, pureeing his chickpeas and serving his freshly-prepared salads to the thousands of regular diners, tourists and theater-goers on the Charing Cross Road.
This was the successful culmination of a year-long campaign to preserve this Israeli-owned restaurant, which enjoyed widespread media and celebrity support, particularly by actors who have been eating at Gaby's between rehearsals, before and after performances, for decades.
Eliyahu has a claim to be the first hummus and falafel joint in Britain's capital, or as he says, "When I first started selling pita bread here, nobody knew what to make of it and they called them 'envelopes'. I was the first person to put up a shwarma skewer also, long before all the Turkish doner cafes started. But I took the shwarma down in the 1980s, when I decided we should be serving healthier food," though some would dispute the healthy label on salt beef.
He won't say how old he is, but based on him joining the Israel Defense Corps Nahal brigade in 1953, he must be nearing eighty.
Born in the Jewish quarter of Baghdad, Eliyahu emigrated to Israel on his own as a teenager, a couple of years after the state's establishment. After a decade on Kibbutz Kfar Rupin, he moved to London.
The kebab pioneer
"I didn't want to leave Israel, but my parents were still in Baghdad, and at the time, as there was a state of war between the two countries, the only way of staying in contact and helping them was by living in another country. In the early 1970s we managed to have them smuggled out to Israel, through Lebanon and Turkey."
One of his first jobs was managing a sandwich bar in the West End and two years later, he was offered the lease. Thus Gaby's Deli was founded.
"When I started in the West End, all they sold here was salt beef," he says, "so we did that but started offering fresh salads and hummus, falafel and kebabs, before anyone else in London was doing the same thing."
On a tour of the subterranean kitchen, he passes through the different stations of beef-curing, in which the great haunches are reduced to less than half the size. "In the food department of (famous London high-street establishment) they sell salt beef that is prepared in 24 hours," says Gaby. "Here it takes 11 days. But the quality of salt beef in London has gone down terribly over the years, like hummus in Israel, which has gone downhill."
Just over a year, Gaby was informed by his landlord, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, the 7thMarquess of Salisbury and one of the biggest private real-estate owners in London, that he would have to move. Gascoyne-Cecil was putting up the yearly rent and planned to find a business that would lease the adjacent shops and kiosks too, paying four or five times what Gaby was paying.
The news that Gaby was being forced to close down spread quickly through the West End, especially through the acting fraternity. Newspapers articles were written excoriating the Marquess. Petitions, Facebook and Twitter campaigns abounded, supported by thousands, including Shakespearean actor Simon Callow who had started eating at Gaby's as a student; and veteran actress, Vanessa Redgrave.
"We rely on our regular customers, who come again and again over the years and then bring their children and even grandchildren. They were the ones who convinced me not to close," says Gaby. "I heard from a customer who is an MP, who I can't name, that even in the House of Lord, members came up to him and accused him of being greedy.
"They don't want to see another chain outlet opening here, a McDonald or Pret a Manger. People are fed up eating plastic pre-packaged food. They want to eat real food at decent prices."
The lease was supposed to end at the end of May but last week, Gaby was informed he would be allowed to stay on another year. No official reason was given but Lord Salisbury was the organizer and leader of the Royal Pageant of a thousand boats on the Thames River, for Queen Elizabeth's diamond Jubilee, that took place two weeks ago. The role attracted a good deal of media attention and according to Gaby, "he probably didn't need negative PR at a time like this, especially when he saw how many people and the newspapers were against closing us down."
So he has been reprieved, at least for another year. And then? "Everything comes to an end," says Gaby, not prepared to promise he will stay on after. "All the restaurants that were here when we first opened are long gone."