The last time we went to the Greenhead House restaurant in Chapeltown we paid just under £120 for two but despite the size of the bill it was a night of fun from start to finish. Owners Neil and Anne Allen might serve up posh food but they do like a giggle.
It was summer and the tables had brightly coloured plastic seaside buckets and spades with windmills. And there was something to smile about when you went upstairs to spend a penny – at least in the Gents.
There was a Beano annual, a pocket bagatelle and, in a corner, a roll of vintage Izal toilet paper, the hard, shiny Made-in-Sheffield bog roll which we employed as tracing paper as kids. You weren’t meant to use it (there was softer stuff available), not when it cost a tenner on eBay. It was there for a laugh.
Now Greenhead House is to close towards the end of August after 33 years. Considering very many restaurants can’t even last for three years, that is some achievement. Considering the Allens were serving the top end of the market, it is even more of one.
They’ve not announced it yet but word has got out by what Anne calls “bush telegraph.” So people who have been before have rung to book their last suppers and people who have never been have booked to see what all the fuss is about. And the consequence is that you can’t get a table for love or money between now and closing day. At least, I can’t.
“We should have done this (announced their retirement) in the recession years,” says Anne when I rang. And she recollects that this was a bit like how it all started, by word of mouth. When they opened for business in 1983, serving country house style food with classical French overtones, South Yorkshire was a gastronomic wilderness. Whatever they would have cooked would have been welcome. Thankfully it was good. People loved what they offered although with a tiny dining room seating only 30 the place could be booked up weeks, if not months in advance. It took me ages to book a table for my first review there because with small children to look after we could not commit months in advance.
Neil was 25 then. He’ll have just turned 58 when he cleans down the kitchen for the last time. And he was, he says, “a bit of an innocent” back then. True, both he and Anne had been in the hospitality business from the age of 14, part-time. He’d already worked at the Savoy and the legendary Sharrow Bay in the heyday of Francis Coulson and Brian Sack so the food reflected that. Greenhead remains the only local restaurant to offer a second course ‘refresher’ of sorbet or soup (or mousse).
You paid, then as now, by the price of the main course, currently £51 but it includes everything, from appetisers to coffee with petit fours.
The restaurant got early approval from the Good Food Guide by being made South Yorkshire’s restaurant of the year. There were good years and lean, particularly during the recessions. At one point they went into the luxury soup business, selling tubs of it to selected delis. “Lick and stick!” says Neil, remembering the job of pasting on the labels.
Neil says he won’t be sad to close because, while the restaurant has given them a good life where they have raised a family, he won’t miss the cooking because he’ll still be doing it, but for his family. Then there are his two vintage caravans to play with, holidays and travel. But first they’ll be moving – downstairs.
There is planning permission to convert the former 17th century cottage back into a private house. “When you are working you don’t have time to enjoy the house. We like living here,” he says.
While Neil’s precise, careful cooking, often with a sense of humour, was the big draw it was Anne’s front of house skills which played an equal part in the restaurant’s appeal. In many places the bigger the bill the bigger the degree of snootiness. But at Greenhead you never felt there was any arty-farty foodieness or gastro-gabble.
How could there be when the butter pats were shaped like hedgehogs with peppercorn eyes or puddings came in jam jars with gingham WI lids? We’ll miss them.