It is the dying mirage of the parched man in the desert: dozens of smart waiters – dressed in white shawl collar jackets and perky black bow ties – sallying forth. Each waiter brandishes a tray; on it an ashtray, a bottle of fizz, a single glass flute. Each arm is draped in a crisp linen cloth.
Except this is no thirsty fever dream. This is Soho, and this is its annual Waiters Race. Each July, the screwball dash effervesces through the sleepy Sunday streets. Befuddled bystanders pause, unaware they’re witnessing over sixty years of Soho history flash in front of their eyes.
Today’s fizz bearers look less like Andrew Sachs in Fawlty Towers. Now the race is a melee of young men – some in vests, half-hiding tat-scrawled torsos. Plenty of women run too. They are the wait staff of Soho Present: of Randall & Aubin, Blacks Club and Barrafina. Their hurried footsteps echo their forebears, who skittered round the course in black and white British Pathe reels. Waiters like S Crisvolo, who proudly scooped the prize for his swish employer, The Ivy, in 1955. The Cypriot winner of 1959’s race, whose victory laurel was a bottle of champagne emptied over his head. Prosecco these days, of course.
Did this louche riff on the egg and spoon race derive from Paris’ Course de garcons de café? It’d be fitting wouldn’t it, given that starter’s orders are fired at The French House – that bastion of Soho bonhomie. From here, our waiters leg it down Dean Street, whip round Soho Square and sprint to the finish line at Gerry’s on Old Compton Street.
And it is a sprint, not a marathon. There will be casualties, although hopefully not human ones. A bottle topples from its tray and shatters, ebbing bubbles onto Frith Street. As goes that age-old ritual at the harking of breaking glass, a crowd, somewhere, waheys. And so the Soho Village Fete is begun.
Not all Soho traditions stood the test of time. Another fete activity was for pin-up girls to slurp spaghetti into their lipsticked mouths, in ridiculous competition with broad-bellied men from the Handlebar Moustache Club. No more. The Waiters Race reminds us that Soho must always stay in its cups and must always stay silly.