“ Address: 135 Wardour Street / London W1F 0UT „
My Dutch colleague, Karin, and I took a day trip to London to go to a trade fair and planned to spend the afternoon looking at coffee shops and bakeries in Soho. We had a list of interesting places to work through but by the time we arrived in the area we were already quite hungry and so we quickly realised that we had a great excuse to try out one of the recommended places for lunch. As we worked our way up Wardour Street, we soon realised that the place that most took our fancy was Princi. If you are heading north along Wardour Street, it's on the left side of the road at 135 Wardour Street, just a few shops down from the Hummingbird Bakery.
Princi is pretty original for London but is a spin off of a bakery in Milan, Italy offering artisanal bread cooked on site in a wood fired oven. Lest you have any cynical fear that "they're just saying that", you can actually see the oven from the street. Roughly half of the frontage is a giant window through which you can watch the bakers preparing the dough and putting the loaves into and out of the oven. Lest you think "Hey, wood-fired, that's just a gimmick", you can actually see the wood piled up along one wall. I have to admit that it looks pretty but made me question why most industrial bakeries have a ban on wooden pallets or wooden utensils in the production area, yet an artisan can make a feature out of what others consider to be a health and safety hazard. (You can be forgiven for not giving a damn about that - it's only those of us who work in the food industry who bristle at the double standards).
Princi is the brainchild of restaurateur Alan Yau, perhaps best known for his chain Wagamama and his up market restaurants Hakkasan and Yauatcha although in the case of Princi he's gone for a more European influence. The original Princi is a chain of artisan bakery stores in Milan, named after Rocco Princi, the so-called 'Armani of Bread' and the store on Wardour Street is the first UK arm and has been running since 2008. In a part of the city where the turnover of restaurants is high, still being around 3 years later means they must be doing something right - although simply looking through the windows at the packed restaurant will tell you that even if you know nothing about the background.
There are touches of the Wagamama influence to be found - mostly in the shape of the bench seating and long tables, set either at sitting height or at standing height. The restaurant is very stylish with polished stone tables, some copper tables, comfortable stools in the window and premium stone flooring and classy décor. But whilst even Wagamama can set you back a small fortune, Princi has done a lot to make their eating experience fast and affordable - so no table service, no waiters with headsets and contrived scribbling on your paper table mat. Instead you choose your food at the counter, it's served on a tray - just like in a cafeteria - and then you have to fight to find somewhere to sit.
We were baffled by the 'system' - indeed the guy who served me told me that there really was no system. If you like to know how things work and are comforted by a very British queue system which ensures everyone gets served fairly and in turn, Princi may make you feel rather uncomfortable. It's just not clear how to get served - or possible to tell who's waiting and who's just browsing. I inadvertently broke the cardinal rule of being British and jumped the queue ahead of half a dozen Asian tourists. Fortunately they probably didn't realise how rude I'd been and I just hoped they'd not realise how embarrassed I was.
You can't really queue up neatly since the food is arranged in different 'zones'. Closest to the door are small loaves and rolls and cakes - the sort of thing that logically you might order and take away. I guess that's the reason for the proximity to the door. Next you come to pizzas and trendy sandwiches and other savouries. Then there's the salad bar and finally the till. Only it's not REALLY finally as you turn a corner and there's an area of hot food - mostly Italian dishes - and a bar area. I stood and looked and realised I really didn't know how to use this restaurant lay out at all. Eventually a chap asked "Who's next?" and I jumped in, asking if the pizza slices at the back were vegetarian. He confirmed they were four-cheese and were "very cheesy" so I asked for a slice. Did I want anything else, he asked and I confirmed I'd like a salad. He then disappeared and I realised I was supposed to follow and so fought my way down to the salad bar. He didn't ask if I wanted large or small but thankfully assumed small. I asked for the courgette salad and some pasta salad and it was clear that I could only have two. I was flustered and grabbed the first two I saw and quite possibly would have chosen differently if I'd felt less pressured. I suspect this is the kind of place you have to 'work at' - to go a few times, get to know the staff, get to know the range and be ready with your order rather than fluffing your decisions when the time comes.
Another aspect of the counter service and the range complexity is that you can't really go and grab a table before you get your food or even send someone in your party to do so (unless you're entirely confident about choosing their food for them). I had intended to buy Karin's lunch but as soon as my pizza was on the tray, the server had run off to the salad bar and I had to pursue him. It was almost with a sense of relief that I handed over my money and stepped away from the bar with my tray.
Karin had been scouting out the room and as I paid my bill she told me under her breath that there were two seats in the window. I shot off at great speed in pursuit of the spaces and spread all my gear out to save the second stool for her. Sitting in the window gave us the opportunity to people watch and it was an enjoyable distraction. We'd have struggled to have much of a conversation because the music was loud (mostly retro Italian show-tune type music) and the abundance of hard surfaces (metal, polished stone etc) meant that sound was amplified. In contrast to the aural discomfort, the stools were surprisingly comfy. My pizza slice had a thick base and LOTS of cheese and my side salad was big enough for a main course in its own right. The courgette salad consisted of thick slices of roasted courgette with finely minced mushrooms and the penne pesto had plenty of juicy black olives, sun blush tomatoes and lots of basil sauce.
Looking at the range of products on display, it's very clear that the wood fired oven is only working on bread, and quite possibly not much of that. Loaves are priced around the £4 to £5 mark with the fancier cakes and pastries also sneaking up to over £4 a time. I've since learned that the main production area is in the basement under the shop and that makes sense - you really couldn't serve such a large product range without a pretty substantial bakery and kitchen somewhere on site.
My pizza slice and salad cost £8.50 and I passed on a drink, knowing that we'd be sitting in coffee shops later in the afternoon. For the amount of food and the quality, I felt it was very good value. Karin also had pizza and salad, though a different salad combination. In Antwerp where she works we regularly fork out Euro15 each for a fairly indifferent lunch so the combination of great food and a very 'on-trend' location meant we were pleasantly surprised by the prices