THE chef didn’t cook with onions and garlic, the waiter started a discussion about Adolf Hitler within minutes of us sitting down and we had no idea this odd little restaurant would become such a shining star in Sheffield’s culinary story.
But by the end of the evening we knew we’d had a damn good meal at Rafters even though we had the whole place to ourselves.
The other day Alistair Myers, the current owner (along with head chef Tom Lawson) posted on Facebook that the Good Food Guide-listed place was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Great news in an industry where even the best places can be short-lived but it is not the whole story. It may be 25 years since the Bosworth brothers, Wayne and Jamie, put the restaurant on the map but the roots go back even further, to 1989.
The establishment of the restaurant, the naming and its ambition was the work of three enthusiastic amateurs in the hospitality business although they were not new to another branch of catering.
They were June Hall , a former bakery worker and mother of six, George Taylor, her partner, financier and, on our night, the rookie waiter, and baker Steve Sanderson, with June, the chef at Rafters.
Between them they had a burning ambition to run a posh restaurant. So do a lot of other people but it was the way they went about it that impressed. The two chefs honed up their cooking skills at evening classes at Earl Marshall, where June even found the time to learn upholstery to recover antique dining chairs they’d bought on Abbeydale Road.
The upstairs restaurant had previously been the Carriageway café and before that it was known as the Lord Mayor’s Parlour.
She was determined to get the look of the place right. There was white linen, cut glass, Wedgwood plates and Sheffield cutlery underneath the black rafters which spidered across the ceiling and which gave the place its name.
We paid £51.50 for our meal, big money back then, which is why, perhaps, we were the only customers that night. They had opened in February and we went in April. But the food was good.
We began with prawn gratinee (£3.25) and smoked salmon and egg roll (£4), followed by soup and sorbet, the country house fashion at the time. There were 14 main courses, half of them steaks, but we had duck with Cumberland sauce (£12) and veal with a watercress and almond sauce (£12.75). Steve was responsible for the mains. “I cook without onions and garlic and I keep asking myself if I’m doing wrong,” he said afterwards.
It’s fascinating looking back on menus from 30 years ago. There was crab and avocado among the starters and a main called chicken mango, rubbed with sesame seeds and cooked with a mango and cream sauce.
“I’ll shout it to the rafters . . . that we know something Sheffield doesn’t. They serve a memorable meal” I wrote after we finished off with petit pot of chocolate and a frozen Grand Marnier orange, a sweet from the era of Abigail’s Party, if ever there was.
Despite my praise it did not thrive. By the time the Bosworths took over Rafters was closed more times than it was open. “They were just opening Saturdays and using the restaurant as a base for outside catering,” recalls Jamie.
He and Wayne, who had come from working at the Chantry, Dronfield, were innocents abroad in those days and set about running it without the restaurant licence they required. To cover themselves either June or Steve sat in the kitchen with them until the licence came through. It was then they saw the quick cheffy techniques which had taken them ages!
Meanwhile the brothers were agonising whether to change the name but they couldn’t come up with anything both agreed on. “It’s not easy. Eventually we settled on Bosworth Brothers @ Rafters for a while,” says Jamie, who is glad they didn’t change it.
The Bosworths put Rafters into the guides and made it one of the city’s leading restaurants. It has gone through various hands – Jamie and Marcus Lane ran it together and separately for years until the present Lawson-Myers partnership.
So while Rafters is right to celebrate those 25 years we shouldn’t forget those brave pioneers who laid the groundwork.