When I first moved back to the US after my year abroad in Scotland, I was shocked to find that there were certain things I missed more than their American counterparts. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I knew I wouldn’t be going back to the UK for a long time and by the time I went back it would be as a tourist, and not as a resident. Things like a good fishmonger really wouldn’t matter.
The few things I knew I could at least try to find were the food stuffs I had come to love. Things like McVitties Caramel HobNobs, which were an oat cookie (biscuit) covered in a layer of caramel and chocolate, or Caramelized Onion Jam, perfect with some cheese and crackers. I learned to recreate meat pies and clapshot (a mixture of turnips and potatoes) and even thought about placing an order for haggis at the local butcher’s.
Then, of course there were the things I knew I wouldn’t be able to find – the Tesco brand pork and leek sausages, the beautiful sheep cheeses from the farm down the road, and the 25 different kinds of marmalade to choose from at the import store, all from the same lady in the next town over. Would I ever again find double yolks in almost every egg I bought? Or was that just the magic of the Scottish countryside? I still think of those beautiful golden omelets I’d make filled with leeks and bits of ham.
You can now imagine my delight when I found out that there was going to be a new British restaurant/pub opening less than six blocks from my house right near the train station. It had taken over the old Armenian restaurant that my mother had long claimed was a front for something. We had gone in once years and years ago, but there was no one in the restaurant except one or two guys playing chess, an extremely surly owner who refused to offer us any advice, and a menu that seemed to be out of everything except roasted chicken.
So one Friday night with nothing much else to do, I went with my parents to this new British place, where immediately upon entering, a blast of deep-fried french fries hit our noses. The perfect sign of a good chippie. However, unlike a chippie, or your neighborhood fish and chips place, they owners had tried to up the ambiance, painting the walls in soft colors and adding tablecloths. The menu ranged from fish and chips to meat pies to “Coronation Chicken Supreme”.
A woman sat us down at one of the few unoccupied tables and told us she’d be right over to take drink orders. She was the only server that night, so hopefully we’d be patient. There was something familiar about this place. The open kitchen revealing a tired-out English man, who although most likely in his 40s, had the classic unflattering aging of the Brits. He was pale and chubby, overly red and wrinkled in the face. There was a nervousness in the air, but we looked around and everyone seemed happy with their food, though, so we waited. The same Beatles’ songs kept playing over and over.
When the waitress came back, my mother asked her about the place. The waitress was the owner, she informed us. “But why British food? You don’t sound British,” my mother inquired.
“Oh, I grew up in New England, where that’s all we ate.”
This made my dad’s eyebrows raise slightly, being the East Coast native. We were all too polite to point out that New England is quite different from England in a lot of ways. Besides lobster and chowder and Portuguese food.
We ordered food while the waitress, now owner, hovered too closely, making comments that were forcedly pleasant. We could bring in our own beer and wine since they didn’t have a liquor license. My dad ran over to the liquor store next door and got some beers. The waitress/owner came back and insisted on opening them for us.
“I’m a bartender, so I find this relaxing,” she emphasized. “Don’t drink myself, though.” I couldn’t tell if she wasn’t sure if we knew how to open a beer, or if she wanted to micromanage our experience. My dad sent over a beer to the chef, and his weary nod told us he was very appreciative.
Our food finally arrived and it was, well, pleasant. Mashed potatoes, peas, salad, an assortment of meat pies, my “Chicken Supreme”, and some fish was quickly eaten. Good, but not great. The kind of thing where you know you could probably do better at home, but enjoyed enough while eating.
The waitress continued hovering though, until my parents finally asked her if they were the owners of the other British place that had been open for a few years.
“Decided to take some time off,” said the waitress/owner. “Just needed a break.”
Of course that wasn’t the gossip we’d heard and while her comments weren’t exactly unfriendly or untrue, there was an air of pretense about her. Everything seemed to be a false statement she’d decided to make up two seconds before telling us. There was something odd and unnatural about her, especially given her claims to being in the hospitality business for decades.
We thanked her as we left, saying the food was good and we’d come back, although we weren’t sure we would. As we walked to the car, my dad reminded us that one of our family friends had done some carpentry and maintenance at their last restaurant. “James said the guy, the one who’s the chef and who’s actually English, was really nice. But the wife…” my dad paused to make sure we were far enough so she wouldn’t hear us, “Well, she was mean, pushy, and a bit of skinflint. I always felt rather bad for the guy given his wife. You can’t expect to have a cheery pub where people want to drink when someone like that is always hovering around.”
So much for a new British restaurant.