Last Friday I took one of Cindy Lawford’s fascinating tours of Jermyn Street with the sole intention of finding out more about the now defunct A L’Ecu de France restaurant, a Lucallan eatery which stood on the corner of Babmaes Street and was my very first fine dining experience at the impressionable age of 20.
My pre-tour research revealed a world more a kin to an Ian Fleming novel than the dining experience of a food obsessed student of hotel management. For behind the plush velvet entrance curtains of this exclusive restaurant lay tales of spies and espionage and a man called Chapman Pincher!
Chapman Pincher was the defence editor for the Daily Express during the time of the cold war. He was by all accounts an outstanding journalist in his time, who specialised in mole-hunting in the dark tunnels of MI5 and MI6.
The secret of a good lunch – Years later, long after he had retired as a reporter, Pincher disclosed that his favourite place to extract secrets from ‘prime sources’ was A L’Ecu de France! He was a devotee of the lunch meeting, as he believed that was where the stories lay. Maybe a glass or two of Chateauneuf du Pape helped loosen the tongue?!
The fact that A L’Ecu de France ideally situated for these types of lunches – just off Piccadilly, made it very handy indeed for both Fleet Street and for the civil servants and politicians in Westminster. No staff canteen for Pincher, no he ate at in style several times a week for almost 25 years! Which made me wonder how he stayed so slim and if he ever suffered from menu fatigue! Maybe he was a creature of habit? He did always sit at the same table for lunch, but that was probably more likely to be down to the fact that it was tucked away and private, rather than due to any obsession with rituals.
Whilst standing outside Church’s shoe shop, now on the site of A L’Ecu de France, Cindy told our group that when the restaurant closed and M15 came into remove their bugs from the banquettes, they found a second set of microphones – the KGB had been bugging the place too!
Pincher’s most memorable scoops
His employers called him “the lone wolf of Fleet Street” because he was the man who got the stories other journalists seemed to miss.
It was Pincher who revealed the full damage wreaked by the spy George Blake who was responsible for the betrayal and deaths of 40 British agents He was sentenced to 42 years in prison, but escaped in 1966 from Wormwood Scrubs and fled to Moscow.
It was Pincher’s scoop that accurately predicted British agent Greville Wynne would be exchanged by the Russians for their own spy, Gordon Lonsdale, in 1964.