SEEING A PHOTO TAKEN of La Cage Imaginaire, a restaurant in Hampstead has whet my appetite for writing about some memories of eating in this picturesque part of London long before the current restrictions on individuals’ movements and public gatherings.
My parents used to like dining out at a ‘bistro’ in Church Row, a street lined with lovely old houses. The Cellier du Midi, as its name suggests was in a basement. Long before my mother died in 1980, they dined there often. My sister and I were never taken there. This made me curious about the place and for many years after they stopped going there, I thought it would be fun to try it out. It was only at the beginning of the 21st century that I did. My father’s teacher at the University of Cape Town, and later his colleague at the London School of Economics, Professor William Baxter (1906-2006) and his wife invited my wife and me to have dinner at the Cellier. It was Baxter, who in 1938 encouraged my father’s family to send him to England to continue his studies. I was excited about the prospect of eating in this restaurant at long last. Sadly, by the time we were invited there, the food was far from exceptional. It was far below the quality that would have been acceptable to my late mother, a discerning eater.
My parents ate Indian food occasionally. Their favourite Indian restaurant was the Shahbag in Rosslyn Hill, the continuation of Hampstead High Street. I ate enjoyably there once or twice with friends in the early 1970s but did not return for over 30 years. One evening, we drove up to Hampstead to attend a concert in a church on Rosslyn Hill. We arrived just before the performance was scheduled to start. I was driving. I dropped my wife and a friend at the venue, and then looked for somewhere to park. It took so long for me to find somewhere that I had to miss much of the concert. As the concert was near to the Shahbag and I was also hungry, I decided to miss the music and make a nostalgic trip to the Indian restaurant. I sat down and placed an order. Then, I waited and waited. While I was waiting, I looked at the food being delivered to customers on neighbouring tables. It did not look too appetising; by now, having visited India many times and eaten Indian food cooked in many Indians’ homes, I could distinguish between well and poorly prepared dishes. My appetite diminished. I looked at the time. It was nearly time to collect the rest of my party from the concert. I summoned the waiter and told him that as I was not prepared to wait any longer, he must cancel the order, which he did. I was disappointed that this experience had shattered my nostalgic illusions about this venerable establishment.
After my mother died, I began practising dentistry in a village near Gillingham in Kent. I lived down there during the week and visited my father most weekends. On Sundays, my father and I usually ate lunch out, often in Hampstead. One of our favoured places was the Cage Imaginaire, a tiny French restaurant at the end of Flask Walk furthest from Hampstead High Street. I always associate this restaurant’s name with that of a humorous film, “La Cage aux Folles”, which appeared in 1978. However, the restaurant was/still is a serious eating place. On one occasion when the waiter brought the cheese trolley to our table, I cheekily asked him to point out the cheese whose odour most resembled that of smelly socks. Without batting an eyelid or showing any disdain, he singled out a satisfyingly pungent French cheese.
Gradually, my father and I shifted our allegiance to an Italian restaurant, the Villa Bianca in Perrins Court. Although pricey, the food at this eatery never failed to satisfy. My father, whose mastery of the Italian language is good, enjoyed chatting with the Italian owner and his staff.
During my student days, all twelve years of them, I lived at my family home north of Hampstead, but visited it often. One place in which my parents would never have set foot but was popular with my friends and I was Maxwell’s on Heath Street. This was Hampstead’s take on the American eating experience. Just up the street from the Pizza Express, Maxwell’s sold good hamburgers and milkshakes. Popular with more than one generation of northwest London’s younger set, this place opened in the 1970s and closed more than 40 years later. Incidentally, Maxwell’s pre-dated the arrival of McDonalds in London.
Almost across the road from Maxwell’s there was and still is a good Japanese restaurant, Jin Kichi, at which I ate several times more than 20 years ago. This was the first place I ever ate sukiyaki, a dish that involves cooking raw meat on a hot plate on the dining table. Writing about this brings to mind another place, which was not strictly in Hampstead but close by in Swiss Cottage: Benihana.
I have only eaten at a Benihana restaurant once and that was long ago when the girl, who is now my wife, celebrated her birthday at the Swiss Cottage branch. We sat at counters surrounding an open space where our chef cooked, or rather performed, our meal. The chef would pick up a prawn, place it on a hot grill, and then toss it high up in the air, catch it, before placing it back on the grill. This performance of flinging food items up into the air and putting them on and off the grill was impressive in terms of juggling skills but disappointing as a gastronomic technique. By the time a much travelled, burnt, dead acrobatic prawn arrived on my plate, it had lost any appeal for me. However, a good time was had by all, except the prawns and other fragments of food we were served.
Returning to Hampstead proper, there is one restaurant that has been in existence since 1962. This is La Gaffe, which is on the same side of Heath Street as Jin Kichi, but higher up the hill. Although I have passed this place countless numbers of times, I have never entered it.
Heath Street leads down to Hampstead Underground Station and the start of Hampstead High Street. Despite vociferous objections from many of Hampstead’s ‘snobbish’ and ‘cultured’ residents, McDonalds managed to open a branch of their famous fast-food operation a few feet away from the station. It took the company twelve years to fight the objections to their opening. Although I enjoy ‘haute cuisine’, I have the occasional yearning for a meal at Mcdonalds. The Hampstead branch was perfectly acceptable. However, after 20 years business in Hampstead, the company closed its branch there in 2013. It has been replaced by a branch of another chain, Le Pain Quotidien. I preferred its predecessor.
The Coffee Cup in Hampstead Heath Street is almost as old as I am. It first opened in 1954. Both externally and internally, this has not changed in appearance since my early childhood. When I was at school in the 1960s, this was the place to ‘hang out’. Oddly, I never did. In those days, the café had an exciting reputation. Maybe, I was not exciting enough to pay it a visit. Recently, I have ventured into this relic of the coffee bar era of Hampstead. I enjoyed a satisfactory, but not top class, espresso in its quaint interior, which looks as if it retains the original decor that it had when it first opened. I did not eat anything there, but I watched delicious looking pastries and English Breakfasts being served to other customers. Oozing with nostalgia, this place is as popular now as it was long ago.
Walk up either Perrins Court or Perrins Lane, and you will reach the southern part of Heath Street just before it continues to become Fitzjohns Avenue. On that short stretch of road, stands Louis Hungarian Patisserie. It was opened in 1963 by a Hungarian called Louis Permayer. Like the Coffee Cup, Louis has retained its original appearance. However, although it began as a place purveying Hungarian pastries and cakes, its current owners provide similar items, but not quite as tasty as what the former owner sold. That said, it is a quaint place to sit and chat over a hot beverage and a snack.
Louis has a special place in my memory. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, I met one of my fellow students for a date one afternoon at Louis. My female friend liked the place and we have visited often since she became my wife some years after that afternoon. She recalls that in those long off days when we first met, Louis served coffee with a separate small bowl of whipped cream. Sadly, that tradition has disappeared and the charming Eastern European waitresses now working at the café look uncomprehendingly when you try to get a bowl of this with your coffee.
As soon as it is safe to roam around without risking one’s health excessively, we will head to Hampstead for a not brilliant but romantically nostalgic coffee at Louis, provided it has weathered the pandemic.
Photo of La Cage Imaginaire by Colin Hill