Cult Shop: are these the best old-school sandwiches in London?
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London is bursting with sandwiches. From wedges of focaccia stuffed with broccolini to £12 multi-layered subs, so adventurous is the current appetite that some forget a sandwich is just a filling and two slices of bread.
But on a side street in Marylebone, the lunch service stays humble. Paul Rothe & Son has been hand-making sandwiches for more than 100 years, and takeaway prices seldom exceed £6. “The most popular is pastrami with Swiss cheese, pickles, mayonnaise and mustard,” says Paul Rothe, who runs the deli with his son, Stephen. “It’s closely followed by Coronation chicken.” Any combination of fillings is available – choose from around 30 – plus seven types of bread, including ciabatta, granary and classic white baps.
Paul’s grandfather set up shop as a German deli in 1900, when much of the trade came from the shop’s grocery section. As London’s city centre has been hollowed of residents and lunch hour has taken precedence, this offering has been streamlined into an Aladdin’s Cave of speciality preserves. Marmite is a strong suit – “we’ve got truffle, chilli, extra strong”. As is mustard, highlights of which include tarragon, Pommery and Edmond Fallot Dijon – “the Dom Pérignon of mustard”.
Although today’s menu errs towards British tastes, there’s a clue to the Rothes’ heritage in the hot frankfurter sandwiches. Other Germanic treats include spicy liptauer cheese, which Paul makes fresh alongside prawn mayo, mackerel pâté – “nice with pickled cucumber” – and roast topside of beef. The frankfurters are a hit now but it wasn’t always so easy being a “Deutsche Delicatessen”, and Paul is full of stories about the two world wars. When one customer asked his grandmother about her “German-sympathising husband”, his grandfather chased him out of the shop with a carving knife.
By noon, a long queue starts to snake around the block, consisiting of accountants, solicitors and architects – “representative of the operations around here”. “Most of our customers come in every day,” says Paul, who credits his generous portion sizes. The ’50s Formica tables – nailed to the floor to keep people from moving them – not only attract regular patrons, but also the odd celebrity. Madonna, Guy Ritchie and Anthony Hopkins have all sampled the deli’s fare – Hopkins even ate a grapefruit that was meant for a Paul Rothe employee. (Rather than mourning it, “Jackie was chuffed”.)
The Rothes are unfazed by the current obsession with large, luxurious sandwiches – “we haven’t got the option of putting broccoli in there” (Paul tries to do as little cooking as possible) – but there’s still room to experiment. Recent requests include egg mayo with potato salad and coleslaw, and honey, banana and cream cheese. Peanut butter and bacon was the regular favourite of one late customer, an opera singer. Most unusual, however, was “the young lady who came in and asked for sardine, pork sausage and Branston Pickle”. Paul initially thought she’d recited an order wrong – “then she came back every day in December”.
The shop shuts at 4pm, with the last sandwich – as lovingly wrapped in Paul Rothe & Son paper as the first – served slightly before then. It’s tempting to wonder how the deli could expand its offering, but Paul is happy as it is. The last time he updated the menu was to add baked potatoes, a decision he’s since come to regret. “It makes life very complicated,” he sighs. “You have to wait for them to get hot.” (The Rothes hate an unruly queue.) But, like the Formica tables and frankfurters, the line is just another part of the Paul Rothe experience. Recently a customer was overheard grumbling about the wait time. “The person in front turned around and said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s worth it,’” says Paul. “I thought that was rather nice.”
Paul Rothe & Son, 35 Marylebone Ln, London W1, @paulrotheandson