He would introduce you quietly, unobtrusively to his world of Middle Eastern fare in the heart of London’s theatreland.
So entwined was Gaby Elyahou with his foodie world that an obituary of him becomes an obituary of Gaby’s Deli itself.
Although this world ended in 2018 when Gaby’s closed down, the real ending is now, with his death at the age of 86, when that lingering magic he exuded has finally faded, inviting nostalgia and savoury memories.
Journalists, poets and thespians and would flock to Gaby’s in Charing Cross Road to enjoy a thick chunk of bread barely containing its pyramid of salt beef.
There was also dolmades, and tahini – kebabs of every description plus the inevitable, hummus and falafel.
Its rough charm was just that – it had not the faintest touch of elegance about it, if you discount the vernacular elegance of conversation.
For here you could chat poetry, politics and polemics, with a star or two popping in between rehearsals and the odd flag-waving demonstrator dodging the police. Its many regulars included Charlie Chaplin, Diana Rigg, Matt Damon and Mike Leigh.
The question of whether or not the Iraqi refugee with penetrating eyes and a knowing smile, who came to the UK via Israel about 60 years ago, really did introduce falafel and the cappuccino machine to London, as he claimed with a sardonic smile, is academic.
The word on the street was that his falafel, hummus and salt beef were the best in town.
I was introduced to Gaby’s, described by director Leigh as “one of the great institutions of the West End, by a film journalist and two poets.
Gaby’s world was not Israel, exactly, nor the Middle East, not even the world of drama, but some mystic amalgam of all of that. Plus something else: It was about conversation and the way food connects with all three.
But the life of this guru of the deli world remains a private space, revealed possibly to his closest customers, his actors and writers.
He opened Gaby’s in 1965 and it soon became the hub of swinging London; simple tables; no tablecloths, the blue Gaby’s Deli sign never changed its colour, never fell to the moderniser’s touch.
In some ways it was like your grandmother’s kitchen; hanging plants and copper pans everywhere, with the artful touch of theatrical posters and signed photographs by stage and screen stars on the walls.
When it was threatened with closure in January, 2011, the good, the great and the hungry issued a petition, signed by 3,000 people, to “Save Gaby’s Deli”.
The Telegraph’s restaurant critic, Matthew Norman – who rated Gaby’s 9 out of ten for its bean and barley soup, chicken liver and onions and spinach salad – pleaded with a former Tory leader of the Lords: “Think again, Robert Cecil, seventh Marquess of Salisbury”, he boomed: ”Think again, sir; and reprieve Gaby’s deli.”
The thespians were particularly upset because for almost half a century, Gaby’s was the go-to deli for London’s theatreland. In a bid to save it Simon Callow, Vanessa Redgrave, Henry Goodman and Miriam Margolyes organised a series of fundraising cabaret nights
Full print and broadcast media covered the story, and Facebook and Twitter took up the campaign. The JC even got involved with Christmas cards designed by its cartoonist Gerlis, which Gaby’s customers sent in their thousands.
The Seventh Marquess eventually surrendered, and Gascoyne Holdings, which managed the estate on the Salisbury family’s behalf, reprieved the deli. But it which finally closed on October 31, 2018, when Eliyahou, then 82, felt he was too old to continue,
What is known personally about Gaby Elyahou was his birth near Baghdad and his move to an Israeli kibbutz as a teenager. After serving in the Israeli army, he went to London in the early 1960s and launched Gaby’s in 1965. He and his wife Levana had three children.
On Gaby’s retirement, his nephew Menachem Kojman, who helped run the cafe, concluded he could no longer battle against the march of chain restaurants dominating London’s West End. “I’m sad because a lot of people helped us survive in the past few years, and I feel like I’m letting them down,” said Kojman. “We have a lot of loyal customers.”
Perhaps Gaby’s would not have survived the Covid-19 pandemic, but customers still miss it, andits exotic owner. Gaby.
One of the campaign organisers, Eleanor Lloyd, now president of the Society of London Theatre, said: “My office overlooks the site and reminds me what an extraordinary place it was”.
Gaby Elyahou: born September 25, 1936, Died March 5, 2023.