My Clerkenwell Life – Sophie Graham-Wood

The manager of the hidden- away but much-loved French restaurant Le Café du Marché, off Charterhouse Square, is the daughter of the late founder. She tells Becky Tanner-Rolf about its 30-year history and recent transformation.

How did it all start?
My late father Charlie Graham-Wood, who was half-French and had been trained in hospitality at The Savoy, wanted to open his own restaurant, serving what we like to call ‘honest French food’. He had a friend who knew that a Charterhouse mews building was to let. And in 1986, Le Café du Marché opened. At the time, people thought it was a risky move as there weren’t many restaurants in the area. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything in the area, back then…

How did the business grow?
My father used to say that a crisp white tablecloth with baguette and butter on it was always a good start. He concentrated on the essentials and didn’t overspend in the set-up of the restaurant, believing that once he had customers and the business tookoff, he could improve. Word of mouth was hugely important, given the location and no internet! About seven years in, he expanded and opened Le Rendezvous bistro next door.

What happened after your father died?
This was in 1999, and my mother Anna took it over. At the time, she and her business partner did consider selling up. However, the senior management (some of whom are still working for us today) persuaded her to keep it going.

How did he choose the name?
‘Café du Marché’ literally means ‘Café of the Market’ – it’s because of being so close to Smithfield.

Describe the building
It’s a converted warehouse that we were told was once a corset factory and then a medical warehouse for St Bart’s. It was built on the site of former stables used by the Charterhouse. My father loved its character and charm.

When did you come on board?
I joined in 2010, when I was 23, as a waitress. I didn’t think I would stay but I loved it and worked my way up the ranks. It’s still very much a family restaurant. My sister Lucia also helps out from time to time.

How has the restaurant been redesigned?
I jokingly call it a rapprochement between the two dining rooms – part of the dividing wall between them has come down. The two are now a united force and there is no longer any fighting over who has all the cutlery! We wanted to make the business more streamlined and when we came across some old architectural drawings of the building, we found our inspiration.

What do you like most about your work?
What keeps me excited and passionate about the restaurant is my father’s legacy. I feel very proud of what he has created. He worked so hard, took a huge risk and everyone flocked here. Now that I’ve overseen this refurbishment, in some way I feel like I have put my stamp on the place too.

Who is your typical customer?
We get a lot of City workers in general. We have some wonderful regulars who have been coming for years, some of whom knew my father, which is lovely. He was a very tall man, wore colourful clothes and everyone remembers him because he had huge charisma.

What is your favourite dish on the menu?
La Côte du Boeuf. It is actually the only permanent dish we offer as we change the menu every six weeks. It’s served simply with Dijon mustard, chips and salad.

What do you hope for the future of the restaurant?
I’d like to build on our private-dining facilities. We have an upstairs room, Le Grenier (‘attic’), for up to 60 people. That’s where we hold our monthly “jazz and chanson” nights. I’d love to have more events in our new space on the ground floor now, too, as I think it lends itself really well to that.

What do you like about working in Clerkenwell?
I love it here because the area is so full of history. We are next door to The Charterhouse, and you can’t get much more historic than that, even for around here. I find all the links to Dickens enchanting, too – this part of London is fascinating.

Sum up the restaurant in three words
Atmospheric, convivial, relaxed. It inspires the bon vivant.Le Café du Marché

22 Charterhouse Square