When I was little in the late 1950s and 60s eating out was a very rare treat. The usual locations were fish and chips shops when on holiday at Bridlington, Scarborough or any of the other Yorkshire coastal resorts. The only other occasions tended to be either returning from a day trip and stopping off at Harry Ramsden’s at Guiseley or Nash’s at Chapel Allerton with my grandma, or occasionally Nash’s in Leeds when I was with my mother shopping. All of these venues were very posh to us and fish and chips were served with triangles of bread and butter and a tea served with silver teapot and milk jug. We had to sit quietly and well behaved and it was a ritual that indicated we were lucky to be enjoying such fare.
There may well have been other types of restaurants, but we never frequented them and, to be honest, I don’t remember any, apart from the cafeterias in the large department stores such as Schofield’s. In these times you rarely saw anyone eating in the street. It was seen as uncouth and, in fact, you could be in serious trouble if you were caught eating in public wearing your Roundhay School uniform. I remember Miss Ellis, who lived opposite our house in Gipton Wood Crescent, contacting Roundhay Girls’ School to report a girl who lived nearby for such an offence and she got into quite serious trouble. I believe the girl was Kirsty Fraser and her family knew mine quite well. This report added to our fear of Miss Ellis. The elderly music teacher kept our balls if they went into her garden and would knock angrily on the window if she caught us trying to sneak in to retrieve one. The only exception to eating in public was fish and chips, eaten from the newspaper. For some reason that was acceptable and the smell of well cooked ‘times with scraps’ covered in salt and vinegar mingled with the fat oozing onto the paper lingers to this day and would have contributed to my father’s early heart attack.
As I got a little older I became more aware of cafes and coffee bars which were opening up all over Leeds. We would frequently go to the coffee bar next to the pet shop at Harehills and loved the jam tarts and I remember well large mirrors on the wall that made the room appear bigger than it was. Occasionally we would have a visit to one of the cafes in the market or in the city and these were often Italian or Greek owned. It was in these that I first caught a glimpse of the exotic, ‘Frothy Coffee’ served in a glass cup and saucer. The machines that made them were chrome and shiny and involved knobs that turned, steam that hissed and a great deal of manipulation and had a wonderfully aromatic odour. These cafes also had a selection of cakes, some of which were familiar, but some had layers of pastry, nuts and were covered in honey. Far too fancy for my undeveloped taste, so I stayed with the jam tarts or sometimes the little fruit pies with fresh cream swirled on top.
I grew up with a very simple palate and we had a very plain fare at home. The kitchens in the houses we lived in were tiny and didn’t cater for gourmet cookery, which is good, as my mother, whom I loved dearly, was a master of the basic. Mince, sausages, pies were in her repertoire and when we had a fridge, fish fingers, frozen burgers, tinned Fray-Bentos pies and, later, Vesta meals. Who can forget Chop Suey with crispy noodles, chicken supreme or chicken chow mein? I have grown up thinking fish had hands as all we ate were fish fingers. To add to any meal were copious amounts of Heinz tomato sauce. For dessert it was rice pudding, usually Ambrosia Creamed Rice, or Heinz tinned steam puddings. Pierce the lid and boil in a pan. On a weekend, Sunday was always a salad. That included some ham, a lettuce leaf, half a tomato and some bread and butter. Variations were a slice of tongue, which I hated, or half a sausage roll. I still remember feeling half-starved, but I suppose it was easier on my mum.
Nothing much seemed to change until I got to high school and started going out and eventually, from the age of fourteen, to pubs. Luckily I had various jobs to help subsidise the pocket money. Pubs would sometimes be visited by seafood sellers with cockles and mussels on sale in little cardboard tubs or paper bags and you got a wooden fork to eat them. I was never keen as it was alien to my limited diet. As a teenager we started hanging out in coffee bars such as the Texas Grill and Del Rio’s and there I began to broaden my horizons just a little. Hot chocolate became a favourite and eventually coffee.
As we hung around Moortown Corner at the Chained Bull and around Oakwood, and we had more disposable income, we started to eat out as part of our social meetings. The small parade at this time had Jones of Oakwood electrical store and a range of specialty shops, but a new place opened offering a cheap and new experience. It was called the Acorn and it was a pizza bar. I had never had a pizza and didn’t have anything to compare it with, but for us it opened up a new venue to socialise. It did takeaways, but it had a section at the back that had two levels and had several tables where you could eat in. It seemed very trendy and opened until late. It was run, I believe, by two young couples who had the confidence and flair of go-getting fashionable entrepreneurs. Good looking, hard working owners, the place was abuzz and we became regulars. Basically you paid for cheese and tomato on a bread base, but it was quickly served, tasted fantastic and there was a wide range of variations and it was relaxed and cheap. It had everything we wanted. It certainly seemed to thrive for a time, but eventually disappeared and new players appeared on the scene.
One of these worked on a similar principle, but was a step up in decoration and setting and offered a wider range of Italian meals. The Flying Pizza on Street Lane appeared with much larger premises, a new and more opulent setting, with indoor and outdoor tables. Their success was almost immediate and queues always seemed to stretch out from its doors and probably still do all these many years later. We used to go with our group of friends and ten or twelve of us would chat, eat, conspire, and discuss music, the band, the world and the meaning of life. Going out to eat became an activity that everyone could experience and enjoy and restaurants abounded, reflecting the wide background cultures of Leeds residents. Venues stayed open reasonably late and families, couples and groups of teenagers, such as ours, frequented different eateries.
The fish and chip shop still had a special place and my parents and sometimes with me and my brothers would go to Bryan’s at Headingly. Like Nash’s and Harry Ramsden’s, the service was good, the portions enormous and the bit of lemon and bread and butter added a touch of class. The place was always busy and I remember going in the 1970s and Colin Welland, actor from Z-Cars and many films, including Kes, was sat there eating and enjoying himself. The car park was tiny and difficult to manoeuvre, as my father discovered on more than one occasion with the bollards leaving tell-tale signs on the car. Street parking was at a premium and I am sure that many tickets must have been given over the years. The local residents must have become quite frustrated with parking across driveways and entrances.
As we got older no night out would have been complete without a visit to an Indian restaurant. Opening late and licensed, they were a great way to extend an evening, particularly as they were relatively inexpensive. I grew to love a curry and they became more necessary as they lined the stomach after too many pints. The restaurants around Harehills, Oakwood and Chapel Allerton became our haunts, and still are when I catch up with my friends in Leeds. I have seen staff put up with some dreadful treatment and racism over the years, but they always remained polite and kept a smile of their faces, no matter what they must have been feeling inside. As we sampled the range of curry delicacies, we began to show our bravado and trying to outdo each other, by eating the hottest Vindaloo became a frequent challenge. I must say that Pete Selby has an asbestos mouth and nothing seemed to daunt him, but I did see him come close to defeat once or twice.
Of course, fashions change and new cultures have brought their own flavours and Chinese, Thai and Japanese restaurants became very fashionable but recently less so. Indian cuisine has remained very popular, particularly as they are often the only venues open late at night. Currently all restaurants have been doing it tough and hopefully, in the not too distant future, we can return to a more normal way of living where eating out in groups is once again an important part of living.
Through all of the changes since I was a child, the humble fish and chip has remained a constant and seems to thrive. One that hasn’t changed in all these years is the art deco one at Oakwood. Long may it live!