By Sean Carey
London’s Chinatown, which lies between Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square, is changing fast. Why? Mainly because the area’s biggest landlord, Shaftesbury, is raising rents exponentially. Unsurprisingly, this increase in fixed costs is squeezing out many long-standing restaurateurs and other small businesses, such as specialist Chinese supermarkets, gift shops, herbalists and acupuncturists.
So if you’re thinking of visiting London’s Chinatown, my advice is to come along soon before the area becomes unrecognizable or disappears altogether.
And if you’re something of a foodie you might want to try a relative newcomer to the Chinatown restaurant scene, Old Town 97 on Wardour Street. Apparently, the restaurant’s name commemorates the year Hong Kong ceased to be a U.K. colony and returned to China as a “Special Administrative Region.”
Compared with some nearby upmarket Chinese restaurants the food in Old Town 97 is very reasonably priced. And there’s a twist: as well as generic (Anglo-) Cantonese dishes such as crispy duck, chicken and cashew nuts, and prawns in black bean sauce you will be able to eat an item that is not listed on the menu – “LSE Fried Rice”. It’s a real bargain at £9.50.
What can you expect? Well, LSE Fried Rice is served on a large, white oblong plate and consists of large portions of egg fried rice and fatty pork, cooked with honey and black pepper, and smothered with an eggy sauce. It’s then topped with a fried egg. I have to confess that having tried the dish it’s not to my taste – too oily, too fatty, too sweet. But then I don’t have a Cantonese or Hong Kong palate. Nevertheless, I can pretty much guarantee that if you do eat LSE Fried Rice in its entirety in the afternoon or evening you won’t experience hunger pangs until well into the following day.
I first heard about LSE Fried Rice through my son, who is a student in London. In turn, he had heard about the dish through his friend, a classmate, who was raised in Hong Kong. On my most recent visit to Old Town 97 at around 5:15 PM last Sunday it was impossible not to notice that most customers in the almost full ground floor of the restaurant were young people of Chinese heritage.
After my two companions and I were seated my attention was immediately drawn to a table opposite around which were gathered six Chinese students, one male, five female. They had just been served LSE Fried Rice. I observed them throughout their meal. No laboratory required for this anthropologist: they were living proof that eating (and laughing) together can generate intense social bonds.
But where does the name, LSE Fried Rice, originate? That’s not clear. I assume the name LSE Fried Rice comes from the demands of mainland, Malaysian, Singaporean or, more likely, Hong Kong Chinese students who attended the London School of Economics. Imagine this scene: it’s another dark, cold grey afternoon in the U.K. capital. There are flecks of snow in the air. A small group of very hungry Chinese students, attending the LSE, venture into Old Town 97 and politely ask the manager if the chefs operating in the basement kitchen could rustle up a wholesome and hearty one-plate dish at a really good price. LSE Fried Rice, which may or may not resemble anything in cafes or restaurants in Asia, was the result and priced just below the psychologically important £10 price point.
A name was then given to this relatively inexpensive, calorie-dense dish and it became known to successive waves of U.K.-based Chinese students through word-of-mouth, word-of-text and, more recently, word-of-blog.
Having watched the Old Town 97 restaurant operation on a number of occasions I’m convinced that LSE Fried Rice makes a substantial, perhaps vital, contribution to profitability. For sure, management will be very aware that hard-working, lecture-attending Chinese students at the LSE and other London University colleges and institutions invariably arrive in the late afternoon or early evening on weekdays or weekends when turnover in this part of the capital tends to be very slow. When the students leave after an hour or so, business picks up substantially as non-Chinese Soho or Leicester Square revellers arrive. So much so that within a relatively short time all three floors of Old Town 97 are packed and remain so until just before closing time at 4 AM. These customers order multiple, expensive items from the printed menu.
Unlike the Chinese students, my son, me, and now you, they know nothing of LSE Fried Rice. After all, it’s not a dish for everyone.