It's a low key Soho landmark. It's the old cheap and seedy Soho, rather than the swanky loft-living expense-account Soho. On the Charing Cross Road end of Old Compton Street, opposite a strip joint and a barber, between the cigarette kiosk that doubles up as a minicab firm and the smart minimalist Thai restaurant with huge bowls of roses on the floor, Pollo is almost always crowded. You nearly always have to share a table, or wiggle into a back corner, clambering over large crowds of hungry students, post-show musicians who have finally escaped from Les Miserables, or from rehearsals for whatever short run doomed musical has just opened at the Prince Edward Theatre.
The other evening, like so many evenings, we dragged ourselves round the corner to Pollo Bar from sheer laziness. My beloved and I had both come home with that heavy shouldered, chattering weariness of a week that had already lasted too long. Growling hungry, but too blasted to cook, the automatic pilot kicked in and we went to eat pasta.
Pollo Bar has four advantages: it's incredibly close, it's always warm, it's very cheap, and the portions of pasta are tasty and huge.
I couldn't count the number of times I have eaten there. I've eaten there alone, tucked in the corner with a book, and a little pile on the table of keys and purse and smokes. I've eaten there with just one other, leaning across the table and whispering scandal while stealing their food. I've eaten there in big raucous groups scrunched around with extra chairs, a litter of bottles and the habitual bickering about the final bill.
It's the old standby, the default, the place to go when you can't decide where else to eat. The place to go when it's close to the end of the month and the bank account is echoing and hollow. It's the place to go when the pub has closed and you realise you haven't eaten yet and all that cider you drank at The Three Greyhounds is about to kick in unless you dampen the effect with some pasta.
I pray that Pollo Bar will never be revamped, that they will never get rid of the orange mosaic tiles, the smeared glass door, the red and white sign that looks like they ran out of space and had to squeeze in the second l at the last moment, the old cash register than kerchunks in such a menacing way when the old man thumps in the prices. I hope that they will never get a fit of design sense, and rip out the tacky old photographs of Italian movie stars, the raffia-wrapped chianti bottles, and the little guitars made of black metal.
And most of all, I hope they will never get rid of the booths on the ground floor. They are so rare in London restaurants, and almost unheard of in bars, but I love booths. I love the way that you can tuck yourself away into their red vinyl cocoon of pretend privacy, shielded further by the bunches of coats hanging from the pegs on the orange varnished wooden dividers.
But this time we were ushered downstairs into the elbow jungle where every last inch of space is crammed with tables, chairs and waiters who just can't be bothered to be polite. Over by the bar, where the staff wait for a raised eye or a flapping menu, under the warped mirror that curves and stretches faces, convincing you that you have probably drunk too much even if you've been as abstemious as a Buddhist monk, we slid into our seats, plopped our elbows onto the dark formica table and started a duet of yawning.
Next to us, a very drunk theatre director, and one of her actors were bitching and moaning at top volume about the unreliability of stage managers. The stage manager in question had been threatening to walk out, to kill herself if one more crazy change was made to the show. The director had suggested that she did this onstage, because it would be more interesting than anything the performers were capable of. The actor, suggested that he did a little song and dance number in the interval. She looked horrified, and began to talk about elephants.
Snarl and I, both sunk down with our heads resting on folded arms, pulled faces at each other and looked at the menu. I don't know why I always make a point of reading through the menu. It never changes, and I always eat the same thing: rigatoni quattro formaggi. Always. Except that evening. I realised that I couldn't face the rich, thick, cheese sauce. And decided to have the tagiatelle alfredo instead, which also has a rich, thick creamy sauce. But I convinced myself that the mushrooms might make a difference. And snarl broke out of his gnocchi habits, to have pasta with an arrabiata sauce.
Don't even think of ordering anything but pasta: the garlic bread is mouth-shreddingly dry, the salads a limp collection of iceberg lettuce leaves and pale tomatoes, the vegetables cooked to a pulp. Oh, but their pasta is so good, such reassuring simple food. There are no frills, no fluttery highblown menu phrases, or promises of the rarest wild mushrooms handpicked at dawn on edges of ancient forests, no white apron wrapped wine waiter fussing and preening and presenting labels. No linen, no silver, no candles, no clever trompe l'oiel paintings on the walls.
We ordered wine. I like their red wine, even though it's nasty. It comes in plain, unlabelled bottles, filled up from a hidden cask behind the counter, and it could, at a push, be used to strip paint. But for all its roughness it has a really fruity kick that cuts through the sometimes cloying textures of too much cheese. It reminds me of the wine I bought on holiday in France, in a five litre container that was filled in a dusty room from something worryingly like a petrol pump, a wine so young that it couldn't pronounce its own name. It reminds me of thrown together picnics, and playing mah jongg on dark terraces. And it's cheap.
And so we drank our wine from the tiny, heavy glasses, and smoked too many cigarettes, and moaned some more about our days. I sat there poking my finger into the pot of pepper while he drew patterns in spilt water.
We drifted into long silences, our half hearted, comfortable conversation half-drowned by the increasing volume next to us. I watched the actor move his food from one side of the plate to the other, sometimes raising it to his mouth, but forgetting the strands of dangling spaghetti as he launched into another torrent of cruel witticisms about their mutual friends. And I watched the director stab her fork into the space between them, her face twisting into scary smiles in the circus mirror as she held the green bottle up to the light to see if it was time to order another.
And when our food arrived, plunked down in front of us with little finesse but a tired smile and a mumbled 'bon appetit', I began the automatic process of scattering a couple of pinches of pepper across it (and wondering how long it would be before I got a chunk stuck in a tooth, giving that unshiftable warm pepper burn) and stirring up the little pot of parmesan with the end of my fork before tap-tapping it above the plate. And I began winding the ribbons of pasta around the tines, and pushing them through the thick sauce, and breathed the rich steam and realised that I was ravenously hungry.
But I don't think I have ever been able to eat a full plate of their pasta. There's always that extra bit too much. Just a few pieces of rigatoni, perhaps, with a cooling smear of sauce but it's the extra that will not fit, even if you take a break, drink a little more wine, smoke a cigarette and think about coming back to it in while, when you've had a rest. But, at three, four pounds a dish, there's none of the guilt of leaving it unfinished. Except that small childhood nagging about clean plates or no pudding.
And we ate slowly, more with tired necessity than delight, paid up, dropped a heavy round coin onto the blue saucer as a tip, and wandered out to weave, with linked hands, through the pushing crowds.