Princess Diana could have had her pick of fashionable dining establishments in and around her Kensington Palace residence but she instead found her way to a tiny nondescript eatery in Notting Hill, west London. It is still puzzling for many why she chose to breakfast at Cafe Diana, then a tiny 20-seat restaurant with a no-frills menu. But not for Fouad, Cafe Diana’s charismatic manager for the past 26 years.
He asks rhetorically speaking exclusively to WEST LONDON TODAY on the eve of her death in a Paris tunnel 20 years ago: “We were not a five-star restaurant, why did she choose us? Why did she support the homeless charity [Centrepoint]? She just wanted to support a small business in the neighbourhood.”
Cafe Diana is arguably the closest you will ever get to a living memorial for the princess. Fouad is eternally grateful for Diana’s continued influence in their growth. He says: “She’s been with us and made us prosper.”
Indeed the restaurant has expanded next door recently doubling its size with 38 more seats in a more sumptuous and tastefully executed dinning space with Diana’s portraits gazing down at patrons. She is here in the famous ‘revenge dress’, an off-shoulder frock she wore to a Serpentine Gallery’s fundraiser on the day her divorce to Prince Charles was confirmed. In another iconic portrait she looks radiant in her last photoshoot by Mario Testino for Vanity Fair magazine.
Fouad strongly disagrees the cafe has profited from appropriating the image of the princess to bolster its business pointing out that the owner, Abdul Daoud, had only just opened the cafe in 1989 and had been agonising over a name for the restaurant when he spotted Diana emerging from the road opposite and decided on the spur of the moment on Diana Cafe which was later revised to Cafe Diana.
The princess, as if on cue promptly appeared for breakfast soon afterwards. Daoud spilt most of the cappuccino into the saucer the first time he served Princess Diana, his jangling nerves deserting him. He has continued to serve customers surrounded by portraits of the woman he calls “the princess of the people”. “My promise to her is to put this place as a tribute for her,” he told Reuters.
Was she a great tipper? Fouad remembers that Diana would say “please keep the change” from her orders. Her favourite item on the menu were simple and healthy options that allowed her to maintain her trim figure, croissants with cappuccino. A favourite seat? “You are sitting in it.” Fouad says pointedly from across the table in the farthest corner of the restaurant which seats two diners who could knock heads together just by leaning forward slightly. She preferred to seat with her back to the window to avoid the attentions of paparazzi who were always on her trail.
She was never a fussy customer, even taking her turn in the queue and when people turned and saw her, they were pleasantly surprised. Fouad says she would come in once a week for breakfast or several times, sometimes accompanied by the princes for a full English breakfast. Her relationship soon blossomed with the staff at Cafe Diana that she would wave as she drove out into town through the private access road from Kensington Palace Gardens, now the most expensive street in the UK.
Her poignant final signed thank you note on official Kensington Palace notepaper dated July 1 1997 to Abdul read: “I wanted to write personally, to thank you so very much for the beautiful flowers you sent for my birthday. They truly are quite magnificent and I am deeply touched that you have thought of me in this special way.” She would die tragically in the Paris crash with lover Dodi al-Fayed eight weeks later.
He is absolutely certain she would still have continued to frequent her favourite neighbourhood eatery and would have been proud to see the business grow with the new annexe. They will be commemorating the anniversary with close friends, family and patrons who had met Diana at the restaurant.
Even though she may not have popped in, in over two decades, she seems very much alive and omnipresent here; in every mouthful, every sip, at every conversation, on every creamy cappuccino froth, even nestling amongst the croissants behind the counter, an icing on the cake for every delicacy.
At the Da Mario restaurant on Gloucester Road in west London, Marco Molino remembers another side of Diana, describing a “down to earth” woman who liked to eat Italian dishes with her sons, Princes William and Harry, or friends.
“Her personality was very normal, very down to earth, very friendly,” he said near an oil painting of Diana on the wall. “I think that’s what she really wanted – a bit of normality … Here was one of the places where she could achieve that.”
Ronald van Bronkhorst, who has lived above Da Mario since the 70s, also said she never made flashy entrances.
“Her legacy will never leave … You think about her all the time, especially in the area we live in.”