Have you seen the new Balans? Well, it’s not strictly called Balans anymore. We delve into the world of Balans Soho Society and why it’s all change at London’s most famous gay eatery.
For those in the know, Balans Soho Society is a stalwart fixture on the Soho scene. Every king, queen and fairy has walked through its doors to be waited on by some of the most beautiful people in the business, to lap up its gloriously transitory environment and to be served the best salmon on toast at 5AM in the morning after a heavy night of Heaven. We speak with the owner, DAVID TAYLOR to see what’s new, what’s changing and if the hot waiters will still be a permanent fixture.
JH: When Balans began life, Soho was at its heart and, in particular, the gay community. Is this the new guise of Balans and will the gay community play an important role or still be considered an important consumer?
DT: Nothing will change and we will be as gay friendly as ever. Our simple mission and instruction (as it has always been) is to indulge and enjoy oneself in the company of fellow bon vivants. We are a café, a restaurant, a bar and definitely a place where rules are made to be broken – a place to go when you feel like doing things you probably shouldn’t.
Balans has always acted as a refuge for outsiders: minorities, eccentrics, bohemians, dreamers… people drawn together by a shared conviction that normal rules don’t apply to them and this could never be more relevant than to the gay community.
Nothing communicates what Balans Soho Society now stands for quite like the design of its façades and interiors, curated by the outrageous Simon Costin (who first made his name creating fashion shows for Alexander McQueen and now his work can be seen at The Met in New York and London’s V&A). Every detail is specifically designed to start conversations such as the genius illustrations detailed on the cutlery and plates of the eye symbolising awareness, tolerance and inclusiveness whilst the key logo represents freedom where a world of pleasure opens up…
We even have match boxes cleverly give some serving suggestions ‘For whatever sparks you up’ which capture the heart, soul and spirit of Soho.
JH: Many famous faces have passed through the doors of Balans. Who has been your favourite and who do you want to see come in for a slap up nosh?
DT: We’ve entertained everyone from ageing rock stars to the likes of Barbara Windsor and Gok Wan who actually worked for us as a waiter.
We’ve also enjoyed the camp company of Dale Winton when he was looking for work as a young man (and when he made it) as well as Davina McCall and all the reality show and soap actors. Two of my favourites of all time would be Amy Winehouse and Adele. This week we had drag queen and gay rights activist, Panti Bliss coming in to eat before her show.
Since opening the restaurant in the early 90s we’ve probably had most of the great and good pass through at some point but we’ve never made it our business to broadcast this as we want people to feel safe and relaxed without the glare from the outside world. The lock logo featured on the new Balans Soho Society branding symbolises just this – in other words – what happens in Balans Soho Society stays in Balans Soho Society.
JH: Tell us why this rebrand is important?
DT: When we opened the Soho restaurant in 1993 we shocked and thrilled many. The first design was described in the press as “a launderette on acid”. We were the first openly gay friendly venue on Old Compton St and, in fact, in London. There were many known gay pubs and one or two restaurants but they were all hid away or behind dark shop fronts. We literally opened the doors with a sliding full height glass shop front and the party spilt onto the street. The Village, Yard etc. quickly followed. Having bought out my partner from the English Balans, I’m now more determined than ever to bring back some sparkle and excitement to the restaurants and invite the outsiders in.
JH: What is the key to being a successful restaurateur?
DT: Masochistic tendencies of course.
JH: What’s your favourite cocktail on the menu?
DT: Having had more than my allotted share for this lifetime I am no longer allowed to drink them BUT, if I did, it would have to be the Pornstar Martini – although we are proud to present the Ode To Madame Jo Jo on our new cocktail menu.
JH: The gay scene in Soho seems diminishing by the day. What’s going on? High rates and rents, difficult trading economy or less gay people out on the scene?
DT: In the early 1990s there was no social media, Grindr or Scruff and so the only way to meet was to go out but now the dynamics of ‘socialising’ have changed. I also believe that whereas before there were only a few areas with a collection of gay venues, now there are many places in London where one can go out, especially in the East of London, and so the gay scene has become more dispersed.
JH: Which celebrity chef would you give a job to in the Balans’ kitchens?
DT: Skye Gyngell.
JH: Will there continue to be a bevvy of gorgeous waiters at Balans Soho?
DT: Is the Queen Madonna?
Kensington High Street has also just relaunched (187 Kensington High Street, London W8 6SH)