The creators of TV game shows call them format points – the unique twists that make the show distinctive, such as contestants on The Weakest Link shouting "Bank!", or the lifelines on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Surprisingly, it's hard to copyright these original elements, which is how we end up with endless insipid reiterations of the same idea.
As with game shows, so it is with restaurants. Someone comes up with a neat concept, a format point – Venetian ciccheti, say, or hot dogs and champagne – and before long, everyone's at it. The latest copycat craze is to specialise in one sort of food: fried chicken, lobster rolls, ramen – and make a fetish of it.
Just such a single-issue restaurant is The Yorkshire Meatball Co, which opened last year in genteel Harrogate, a town that's never going to challenge Brooklyn as a crucible of new dining concepts. The name makes it sound plain-speaking and no-nonsense: it's in Yorkshire, and it serves meatballs, right? And it does just what it says on the tin. Only the tin has been upcycled into an industrial lightshade and then repurposed into a galvanised bucket for skinny fries.
The small storefront dining room is a frenzy of borrowed design tics. From the outside, it's a ringer for the Honest Burgers chain, right down to the logo and menu layout. Inside, it's hyperactive hipster, with colanders and cheese graters serving as lampshades, bent cutlery as coat racks and the daily play-list – James Bay, George Ezra, Mumford and Sons – written on butcher's paper on a wall-mounted roller. With long sharing tables and a sit-up bar, it looks like somewhere you might come for a craft beer and a plate of sliders.
But we don't call them sliders here. Oh no. Here they are – inescapably, exhaustingly – meatballs.
The vaguely hip, downtown vibe comes screechingly off the rails with the punning menu, which appears to have been devised by an end-of-the-pier comic in an innuendo-off with Mel and Sue. Here are naked balls and smashed balls (squashed into a flatbread), hot balls (pork and chilli peppers) and fish balls, smokey balls (lamb with smoked paprika) and fake balls, and a sharing platter called "a banquet of balls". For dessert, there's cheesecake balls and "profiter balls". Quite how they resisted offering chef's "chocolate salty balls" is a mystery.
The lunch menu is divided into three columns: Balls, Beds, and Blankets. Attempting to explain it, my waitress tells me the lunch deal lets me order any ball with a blanket and a bed for just £10, including a drink. What's a blanket? Oh, sorry, it's the sauce. And a bed? Oh, right, sorry, it's a side dish. I feel like a geriatric contestant grappling with the arcane rules of the latest ITV daytime quiz. My host's rigid adherence to the format means that in order to sample a range of balls, I have to order two lunches and invent an imaginary friend who's due to arrive at any minute. Let's call him Ed Balls.
Two lunches, it transpires, is over-doing it. In fact, just one would be overdoing it. Served on a slate – of course – my bespoke three-ball combo ("a taste o'balls") offers a signature Yorkshire ball, a mix of beef and pork presented as a generic warm paste; a tight kofta-like lamb ball that squeaks against the teeth; and a veggie "fake ball" – a loose patty of chickpeas, herbs and onions, like a big-boned falafel stripped of spice or seasoning. These balls deserve to be kicked into the long grass. Ditto the sides, a tinder-dry Yorkshire pud and blandly creamed Puy lentils.
I've pushed aside my dutiful dessert, profiteroles which coat the mouth like damp kitchen roll soaked in lemon curd, and am on to a surprisingly good coffee when the owner approaches me. An ex-RAF man in business with his son, first-time restaurateurs both, he explains that nearly all their produce comes from Yorkshire. They've recently licensed the concept to a boutique hotel in York, though they won't be operating the new venture themselves. At which point I feel I can hear someone shouting "Bank!"
Of course, it's harsh to judge a fun, friendly, good-time place on the basis of one solo Monday lunch – the YMC's probably a riot on a busy night. But if you're only going to do one thing, you've got to do it well. A week later, in London's Soho, I drop into another meatball specialist, Balls & Company, opened earlier this summer by an Australian MasterChef finalist. The tiny room is plain and appealing and the meatballs, served in copper skillets, are fantastic. Miraculously, the whole experience is completely pun-free. Which proves it's possible to do a meatball restaurant without ballsing it up. µ
The Yorkshire Meatball Co, 7 Station Bridge, Harrogate HG1 (01423 566 645). Around £15 to £25 a head, before wine and serviceReuse content