Seasoned to taste: The restaurants that draw happy diners back year after year
In an industry famed for short-lived success and pop-up pretenders, it takes something special to stick around. Just don't ask for anything that involves a flash in the pan...
Sunday 16 June 2013
Is the cronut the new cupcake? Are beef- dripping candles the new lickable bricks? And, really, what is the defining dining trend for summer 2013 : semi-haute-quasi-casual classics served fashionably rude in earth-sprinkled geranium pots, perhaps? If such questions make you want to rent your hair and rage at the heavens, King Lear-style, before heading to the nearest McDonald's, then you're probably not alone. That's to say that with food, as with life, the ever-more-overbearing cult of the new can be as frequently aggravating as it is occasionally stimulating.
Which is why it's nice to rip up the trend- book and give some love to those old-school establishments that have stayed the distance. Whose dishes are old friends rather than precocious show-offs. Whose histories speak of sacrifice, determination and patience. And which possess a natural warmth of character that no amount of customer-service training can replicate. So here, in celebration of the old and the continuing, we profile four of Britain's best- loved food institutions and talk to them about the secrets of their success…
"Oh, do you have to?" smiles Patio proprietor Eva Michalik when I remonstrate that I'll be going back to work after our interview and so should kindly pass on a second beer. Not that I have as much luck when it comes to refusing a second vodka, which she stealthily pours over my shoulder while I'm busy tucking into some succulent duck with apricot sauce. "That's the thing, there are these restrictions now," she says wistfully. "People used to drink all afternoon; now work says they can't."
Few restaurants do the timewarp quite as wonderfully as this Polish establishment on Shepherd's Bush Green, with its Chekhovian drawing-room décor, power-ballads soundtrack and retro pricing: the £16.50 three-course set menu, vodka included, is good value to the point of absurdity. And in an area now dominated by the soul-sucking mass of modernity that is Westfield, such attention to anachronism is especially welcome. Eva and her husband Kaz founded Patio 27 years ago to this day, on 16 June 1986: music students from Krakow, they came to England in the 1970s to escape the Communist regime of their homeland. Kaz is the head chef while Eva is the front-of-house doyenne: for a few years after they opened, Eva continued to hold down a day-job as a pharmacologist, though she was relieved to finally give it up: "I was very unhappy working in the lab, [just] with a piece of tissue all day and nobody to talk to."
Patio didn't have an easy start. As Eva recalls, when they first set up, "No one wanted to eat Polish food," alien as it was to British palates, thanks to Poland's position behind the Iron Curtain. But as the Cold War thawed, so Patio also benefited from the warm endorsement of the big-gun food writers, from Fay Maschler to the notoriously hard-to-please Michael Winner, who awarded it "Best Budget Restaurant" in his Winner's Dinners Awards. They, like every Polish customer, were beguiled by its rare homeliness: Eva chuckles as she recalls the occasion that k food writer Matthew Fort came to review it. Not recognising him, she furnished him with a vodka and asked him to mind the restaurant for five minutes while she popped out to the shops to buy some herbs.
Over the years, Patio has been a favourite of arts and media stars, among them Helen Mirren, Ruby Wax and Jeremy Paxman, situated as it is near the Bush Theatre, the Shepherd's Bush Empire and the former BBC TV Centre. Meanwhile Eva and Kaz occasionally host their own impromptu performances via an upright piano in the centre of the dining room. "We have people from the Empire who come and give us some little song or other." Like who? "Oh, I would not remember their names, I don't know about rock music," she says.
Eva adds that a sharp rise in business rates in recent years has hit Patio hard, as have new parking restrictions. But, despite the stresses, strains, and bare minimum of holiday, her dedication won't wane. "It's my stage," she says, as she sweeps to and from the kitchen.
5 Goldhawk Road, London W12
THE MAGPIE CAFE
While gourmet burgers and fancy fried things abound in 2013, it certainly wasn't this way back in 1979. So when the late, great Egon Ronay recognised a Yorkshire chippie in his eponymous guide, it was a watershed moment for both the restaurant and the perception of so-called fast food. "It turned the business around," concurs the Magpie Café's co-owner, Alison McKenzie Slater. "It turned it from a seasonal [enterprise] into a year-round one and really put our name on the map."
Few, if any, have managed to serve up our national dish with quite such renown as this Whitby eatery, founded in the late 1930s in an old merchant's house on the quay of the seaside resort. Currently run by McKenzie Slater and her ex-husband Ian Robson, the property was bought by McKenzie Slater's granddad in the late 1950s, who then handed it to her parents when he retired in 1964. Having started out serving a meat-centric menu of pies and roasts, McKenzie Slater says it rejigged its priorities as the demand for fish grew during the 1960s and 1970s.
These days, the café's popularity is such that its queues have become as famous as its food. In 2005, neighbouring shops lodged a complaint with the council, saying Magpie customers were obscuring their shopfronts. (Robson says the situation has now reached a "stalemate" and that "they accepted there's nothing we can do about it… we never ask people to stand there, it's their choice".)
Its boom in popularity has coincided with Whitby's renaissance as a tourist hotspot, something which McKenzie Slater says can be traced back to the town's regular appearance in the ITV saga Heartbeat. These days, Whitby is not just prosperous, but, to use that dreaded "g" word, gentrified, and the Magpie has adapted accordingly: with a clientele ranging from "Joe Bloggs" to "lords and ladies", the menu is equally diverse. It includes 19 types of fish and grand old fare such as Coquilles St Jacques and Lobster Thermidor, even as the cod/haddock and chips combos remain the most popular options.
And the key to what Rick Stein has described as the "best fish and chips in the world"? McKenzie Slater and Robson are modest in their answer, crediting no ingenious technique but merely their use of fresh fish – most other chippies, they claim, use "frozen at sea" – and beef dripping, the traditional Northern, and completely transformative, choice of frying oil.
But the spirit-lifting atmosphere is just as important as anything on the plate: "It's like a family," McKenzie Slater says. "Some customers come to see the staff and for a good old chinwag." Spirit-lifting, in fact, in both senses of the word: McKenzie Slater tells me about a ghost that haunts the building and snaffled a lemon sole, on one occasion. "I've felt him brush past me when nobody's there. I believe he was an employee of the shipping office that used to be here, called William Albert. He's not malicious, though he can be a bit mischievous. There's a lady too… [I think] they have a happy association with the building and are reliving old memories."
14 Pier Road, Whitby, North Yorkshire
Amid the manifold riches of the capital's restaurant scene, what are the dishes that stay with you long after consumption? That you would take to your imagined desert island or demand on your deathbed? I will presume to speak for everyone who a) is a carnivore and b) has visited Tayyabs when I say that its lamb chops must be up there. Charred, juicy and zesty, they have become Tayyabs' signature dish by dint of popular gushing.
"Don't treat them like a burger and slap them [into the tandoor] like some places do. Pick them up with care and love," says head chef Wasim Tayyab, explaining the key to their deliciousness in tones as tender as the meat. "Be nice and soft – even when I'm hammering them down, I'll make sure it's done in a perfect way." As for the spice rub that goes on them? That's a secret, obviously. k
Less mysterious is the success enjoyed by the Pakistani curry house, set apart in quality as well as location from Brick Lane's Curry Mile a few hundred metres away. "[In the past], a lot of people said you need to [move to Brick Lane], you'll clean up, but we always said we were all right here, this is our own platform," says Wasim.
Dating back to the early 1970s, Tayyabs was set up by Wasim's father, Mohammed, who moved from Lahore to the East End to work in the rag-trade factories; he was inspired to set up a small daytime café serving two curries – one meat, one lentil – after seeing how his cooking went down with fellow migrant workers in the cramped living quarters they shared. These days it is run by Wasim and his brothers Saleem and Aleem, though Mohammed, now in his eighties, keeps a hawkish eye on proceedings: Wasim compares him to a Shaolin master regarding the rigorous training he and his brothers underwent as schoolboys in all aspects of restaurateuring, from toilet-cleaning to food preparation.
A hidden gem picked up on by the arch foodie/Hoxton hipster contingent in the 1990s and early Noughties, it is now anything but, as evidenced by the manic hubbub of a weekend evening. The weekend before we speak, they found themselves descended upon by paparazzi during a visit by Hollywood power-couple Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. "It does get stressful," says Wasim of dealing with the snaking queues. "You have to be very sensitive talking to a hungry person… but people who know what the trade is like [know to] come when they're on the borderline between hungry and not hungry, so by the time they sit down, the food comes as a joy."
The brothers also receive endless appeals to open more Tayyabs, all the way up to Arab sheikhs imploring them to set up shop in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but, as Wasim explains, "We are too comfortable here; we just want to make this perfect." He would, however, like to write a cookbook at some point, but dammit if there won't be one crucial omission: "The lamb chops – we'll keep that back," he says.
83-89 Fieldgate Street, London E1
VALVONA & CROLLA
Food excepted, one of the most remarkable things about Edinburgh delicatessen Valvona & Crolla is the disparity between its exterior and interior: while the grey, hardwood frontage is as unprepossessing as a nuclear bunker, within lurks a high-vaulted, gastronomic grotto so ravishing that one critic dubbed it "The Sistine Chapel of Continental Delis". But, as co-owner Mary Contini explains, there's good – and grave –reason for the wooden façade: in 1940, the Crolla family was forced to erect it after the windows were smashed during a wave of rioting against the city's Italian businesses that occurred following Mussolini's declaration of war on Britain. "We were thinking of having it [taken] down recently but we went to the council [planning department], and they refused," she says. "They thought it was an important part of Edinburgh's history."
Such is V&C's status within the city and beyond. Currently run by Mary and her husband Philip, it was co-founded by Philip's grandfather Alfonso Crolla, who trekked to Scotland in the late 19th century as part of a wave of Italians fleeing economic hardship. Then, after running an ice-cream parlour, in 1934 he joined forces with fellow shopkeeper Raffaello Valvona to set up a grocers' on Elm Row in the city's New Town, where it remains to this day. Originally serving the Italian immigrant community, the shop really began to boom in the aftermath of the Second World War, partly and ironically thanks to soldiers who returned from fighting in Italy with a new-found taste for the country's cuisine.
These days, of course, with your average Costcutter stocking four varieties of pesto, the competition is rather fiercer. Something which its owners relish: "Part of the absolute joy we derive from what we do is trying to keep one step ahead of the game," says Philip. Which means using their contacts to hunt ever-more exclusive suppliers and exquisite produce.
The couple talk with excitement about a recent tip-off about a sublime blue pecorino, for which they're holding a tasting event later this month, and beam with pride over their bestselling Fonteluna sausage, a fennel-and-chilli-flavoured semi-cured meat they make according to an old family recipe.
Since taking over the business from Philip's uncle in 1986, they have expanded in leaps and bounds, with a café in the back, a VinCaffè restaurant down the road and food halls in Jenners department stores in Edinburgh and the Loch Lomond Shores shopping complex. And that's not to mention that every Edinburgh Festival since 1993, they have converted a backroom into a 70-seat venue.
With their older daughter Francesca already heavily involved in the business, and their younger, Olivia, just finishing university, Mary and Philip are waiting to see if one of them will be inclined to take over once they retire – not that they can imagine doing so any time soon. But, looking back on their tenure thus far, what are the most important lessons they have learnt along the way? "Set the alarm in the morning," chuckles Philip. "You've just got to make sure that every customer really counts," adds Mary. "You can't afford to be off the boil, or think about your own problems. As Uncle Victor used to say, you've got to be the doctor, not the patient."
19 Elm Row, Edinburgh
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