Last week the local newspapers carried a story about two Asian brothers jailed for12 months apiece and ordered to pay fines and costs totalling £182,000 after unauthorised building work led to a building collapse on Brook Hill, Sheffield, in 2013.
The structural engineering standards of the Indian sub-continent finally put paid to the building which had once housed the city’s most celebrated café –the fabled Butler’s Dining Rooms,
Memories fade fast. The Press reported it had previously been an Indian restaurant, which it had, but made no mention of the café there before that which for 80 years had been such an iconic part of the city’s eating scene.
Legends abound about Butler’s. It was here that Picasso, visiting the World Peace Congress in Sheffield, a Communist front, drew a dove of peace on a napkin. It was here they served the Desperate Dan cow pie, so big it was cooked in a metal tin the size of a baby’s bath under a glistening golden dome of shortcrust pastry. You knew when it was ready when the windows steamed up.
Butler’s stood across the way from the old Jessop Maternity Hospital and they say, although I cannot prove it, that men attending the fertility clinic would pop across for a helping of meat and potato pie for vigour before making a, ahem, donation.
It opened in 1910 and closed in 1993, so that’s a lot of pie, liver and bacon, toast and dripping and jam roly poly which went down the city’s collective gullet.
It was run in my time by Stephen Butler, son of the founder, and his wife Edna. Stephen almost always wore a white T-shirt with a picture of a Bisto-type Kid and the legend “Who Said Pie?” But this was the only gesture to the late 20th century.
The tables were Spartan, Formica-topped if you were lucky, and didn’t have cloths. One I remember was topped with a sheet of metal and riveted onto the wood below. It was as if the café was stuck in an aspic of calves foot jelly for on the wall was an RAC map of Britain before the motorways.
Stephen, used to journalists in search of local ‘colour,’ showed me around once, including the cavernous basement with ovens which had once belonged to a London hotel. They made everything themselves. You never heard the ping of a microwave here.
This was stoutly working class.The staff were locals, workmen, people partial to pie, journalists– the Independent commented on the ‘artisan ambience’ – and, every now and then, a self-made man coming back to rediscover his roots. You could tell that if there was a Rolls or Bentley parked outside.
That was until the city council painted double yellow lines outside in 1993. There had been a change in tastes – people were more likely to want a burger than pie – but it proved the death knell of the business. Trade dropped. Stephen sold it to an Indian restaurateur who, knowing its reputation, kept on the name as Butler’s Balti which was a smashing thing to do. It has since, and well before the demolition job, moved to new premises further down Broad Lane.
I ate there several times, either as a restaurant critic or for a story for The Star’s Diary page, now, sadly, no more. The food was basic but very, very good. I can still taste the pie and the roly-poly. I didn’t move very fast after lunch that afternoon.
As I wrote at the time if this had been France Stephen Butler would have been a local culinary hero and they would have pinned medals on his chest. The Cow Pie would have been a regional speciality.
But this is England. He retired and has, sadly, passed away. And isn’t it oddly, eccentrically British, that he is remembered in the name of an Indian restaurant?