It’s not that there aren’t undiscovered gems out there, but eateries that can genuinely surprise, delight and, above all, offer a true bargain – especially in gentrified territory like Greenwich village (UK, not NYC) – are virtually unique these days. You can’t blame them for trying to seek profits in such a risky business, but when they do give value and pleasure such establishments deserve to be nurtured and for the word on the street to become a torrent.
Greenwich’s best-kept secret, sitting aptly on a quirky row of terrific shops a stone’s throw from the main station, might easily be Baba’s Cafe and Bar. In a previous guise it was a much-loved greasy spoon caff, which is no bad thing in itself. The present owners – a family, several of whom were present at the time we were there – have given the old place a jazzy makeover, complete with an eclectic mix of photographic prints (Sid James next to Pulp Fiction!) They kept the breakfast menu, expanded it, provided a number of “British” dishes (in the more traditional definition before we adopted chicken tikka masalas and spa bols), included a few Turkish highlights, and finished it off with a range of quality cakes and pastries from a good local bakery.
Lo and behold, a continental-style open-all-day brasserie, right down to the Efe’s beer. This is the sort of place where you could arrive at 7, chill, watch the world go by, read a paper, order coffee and croissant, maybe a sandwich two hours later, beer and sausages for lunch, more nibbles and drinks later, and finally stagger out at 10 in the evening.
I’ve long thought the brasserie concept (in its original sense, not as per the manifold corruption of restauranteurs who ought to know better) should be perfect for the British way of life, though maybe we have lost the ability to sit, relax and ruminate. We rush through life, which might help to explain why we feel miserable as sin. It would be good for our national psyche to start taking time over food and drink, slow down our processes of reasoning – and thereby reduce our propensity for knee-jerk reactions. Ergo, brasseries might help us make better life decisions.
But I digress. The new Baba’s premises are smart, though at the time we wandered in as footfall customers there were no others in the vicinity. The restaurant we had been aiming for was closed on a Monday night, but luckily Baba’s remains open.
Pending the new website I can’t share with you the menu, but wisely it sticks to the simple and home-made, all of which were turned out promptly and with self-evident competence and flair by a chef who clearly knows what he is about and pays attention to detail. In an era when dishes are frequently over-complicated and underwhelming, that is praise indeed. Taking our two sharing platters, the calamari served showed evidence of being breadcrumbed and cooked from scratch – all for a fiver; halloumi, the eastern Med’s take on grilled cheese, came in robust hunks with chargrilled pitta and some tasty olives – three ingredients that worked.
The theme of simple-done-well continued into the mains. Steak, chips and salad ought to be a doddle, yet is either done badly or overpriced to a ludicrous degree more times than you can shake a stick at. My friend’s hunk of sirloin was served with fresh cut chips and a glorious salad for a tenner all in. Relocate this restaurant in the West End, call it rare breed and you could probably have tripled the price!
My lamb chops were an even greater bargain at £6.95. I’ll repeat that: £6.95 for two meaty specimens of fresh lamb on the bone, the fat congealing into gorgeous crispy flavours, served with a generous mound of bulgar wheat (tad dry, could have done with a sauce) and the same excellent salad.
And all for £6.95, which is so cheap that you expect a tiny portion and/or crap food. This was neither, so I put to our friendly and helpful waiter, Mehmet, that the prices were set very keenly. This is deliberate, he told us – we want people to come and stay, enjoy fresh-cooked food, and build up a loyal following.
It’s a strategy that may go very wrong, not least because people in affluent areas are inherently suspicious of anything that appears too cheap. However, when the execution is much better than average, the ingredients way better than you often find in cafes, and the portions perfectly reasonable, chances are you will win them over – if they can be persuaded to set foot and give it a try. A few promotions to get people over the doorstep might help, perhaps some entertainment might help, possibly even a little music and dancing, create a focal spot for the community, create a bit of pzazz, but if you can get them to return and bring their mates and families the battle is won.
My message to the good people who run Baba’s is this: stick to your guns, win over the locals and make sure you’re still there when I visit Greenwich in 20 years time. Why? Because if I am sure of anything it’s that I would prefer to eat in an honest, unpretentious Baba’s Cafe rather than a commoditised chain restaurant any day of any week.
Good luck to you, guys!