WHENEVER, however restaurants finally re-open things will never be the quite the same again. But are they ever? Prices change, inevitably upwards. And so do menus and fashions.
But would we notice, I wonder, if we were blindfolded and whisked back in time to, say, 30 years ago in Sheffield and the surrounding area and given a menu?
Take it from me, we would.
With time on my hands I have been leafing back through my restaurant reviews for The Star in 1990, and it is surprising how interesting a year that was. The hospitality business is constantly changing but there was an awful lot happening in those 12 months.
It was the time when the city’s tastebuds were sharpening up and being alerted to new ideas and flavours, often by a bevy of young Made-in-Sheffield chefs. The city’s diners were beginning to realise there was more to life than fish and chips or a curry (although some never caught on).
Let’s start at the top. Max and Susan Fischer had not long transferred their business from Bakewell to Baslow Hall, with some heartaches along the way, and were proclaimed the Good Food Guide’s Derbyshire restaurant of the year.
Four months after they opened I tootled over to Baslow to sample the £25 a head TDH – squid ink salmon ravioli on a green herb sauce, venison with chocolate and raspberries, and Grand Marnier and orange mousse, and broke out in purple prose to comment: “Max’s food has a moody, demanding magnificence.”
The bill for two was £64.70, more than twice that at the week’s other review (I more often than not wrote two) at the Admiral Rodney pub.
Things were more light-hearted but no less skilled at Greenhead House, Chapeltown, the guide’s South Yorkshire restaurant of the year (and only entry). Neil Allen’s Anglo-French cooking crossed with English country house offered chicken stuffed with ham, salami and olives, based on a recipe from the Tarn, or fillets of beef with a truffle sauce. And there was the Beano annual and pocket bagatelle in the loo.
Making up the area’s top trio was Tessa Bramley’s Old Vicarage at Ridgeway, really Sheffield but technically just over the border in Derbyshire.
There was soon to be some serious competition. At the Charnwood Hotel (now apartments), a new head chef had not long moved in to take charge of its two restaurants. “I have yet to sample the new Henfrey’s, now under the wing of style merchant Wayne Bosworth, but his food at the adjacent Brasserie Leo shows considerable panache,” I wrote.
In a faux-Parisienne setting you could eat baked marrow bones, salmon and crab terrine with a lobster sauce for £3.95, cod medallions steamed with ginger and, wait for it, pancake baked inside a soft meringue. There was to be much more to come from Wayne.
North of the city the Charnwood’s former head chef was opening at Hudson’s at The Rock, Crane Moor. For a shilling under £20 Cary Brown offered chargrilled smoked salmon or stuffed quail in puff pastry, then a soup or sorbet (those old country house hotel choices), best end of lamb with a kidney sauce, ending with an almond basket of fruits with honey ice cream.
Then, as now, there was a financial squeeze and there were casualties. The excellent Arcadia, at Hillsborough, run by Rex Barker and Paul Betts, by far the best place ever in this suburb, closed, as did the equally upmarket Armstrongs in the city centre. Boss Roy Fellows blasted the city’s diners as “£8 bellyful merchants,” not without cause.
Yet Barnsley could sustain Armstrongs’ twin, of the same name, under the charge of Nick Pound, last seen running restaurants in London. And there was more gastronomic excellence when Max Fischer’s sous chef Michael Peano opened in town, to say nothing of Jim Gratton’s shrine to the Barnsley Chop at Brooklands.
1990 Sheffield even had an oyster bar – briefly. Long before Loch Fyne opened (and closed) a seafood restaurant in the city you could sample their wares at an oyster bar which opened at the Lyceum Theatre that year. Sadly, it didn’t catch on.
Sheffield’s hospitality scene always served up big portions and some didn’t stint on quirkiness, not least at Mr B B’s( now Otto’s) on Sharrowvale Road, almost the city’s sole veggie restaurant, run by owner-cook Peter Wigley. He had revamped it from Singin’ Hinnies, the year before.
The £8 a head three course menu featured bulky veggie food but the most memorable part of the evening was when the waiter put his hand on my wife’s knee. Peter Willamett offered spiritual healing along with the chilli con coconut.
This was an era when hotel dining rooms held sway. The Hallam Tower Hotel might have had a reputation for posh food at big prices but £9.95 Sunday lunches were pretty standard fare. The main attraction was that for an extra quid diners could use the pool.
Its rival, The Grosvenor (now demolished) had Gary France as its head chef, who was to make more of a name for himself when he moved to the Harley Hotel with its sprung mini dance floor. While if you wanted to be seen spending money there was the Beauchief Hotel with tournedos Rossini on the menu.
There were dinky bistros like Parkes and Four Lanes, Hillsborough, lovely little country places like the Millthorpe, in the village of that name, and the Lazy Landlord at Foolow. While Baldwin’s Omega on Psalter Lane was in its champagne and strawberries heyday.
For me, feeling my way as a reviewer, it was all exciting stuff. There would be more, much more, to come.