Lemonia, a Greek restaurant in Primrose Hill, is that odd hybrid, a neighbourhood place that's packed with celebrities. On the surface, it's a down-to-earth, no nonsense establishment, the kind of family-run bistro you find on High Streets up and down the country. The food is cheap and filling and it's plonked down in front of you by fat Greek waiters who wouldn't look out of place in a mini cab office. Yet the fact that it's located in the heart of Primrose Hill, which has long been among London's trendiest districts, means it has a celebrity clientele to match that of St Lorenzo.
Back in the 70s, when Britain's liberal intelligentsia was at the height of its power, nearby Gloucester Crescent was just about the most fashionable street in London, boasting Alan Bennett at one end and Jonathan Miller at the other. Today, Primrose Hill is home to a new, equally glamorous set, including Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Ewan McGreggor, Kate Moss and Noel Gallagher. These two groups give the area its unique flavour, a cross between Hampstead and Notting Hill Gate.
You can get some idea of just how distinguished a group the local residents are by examining the signatures on a petition handed in to Camden Council last June objecting to the opening of a new branch of Starbucks in Regents Park Road, just a few doors down from Lemonia. The Nimbies included the National Theatre's Nicholas Hytner, the broadcaster Joan Bakewell, singer Neneh Cherry, the author Jeanette Winterson and the artist Patrick Caulfield. The Seattle-based coffee company decided to back down rather than face the ire of such a powerful lobby.
Presumably, one of the reason the beautiful people like Lemonia so much is that they're not going to be bothered by anyone. Richard Young and Dave Bennett are no more likely to hang about outside Lemonia than they are the Gate of India on Shepherd's Bush Road. Indeed, given that Kate Moss's waters broke the last time she was there, the absence of any photographers is probably just as well. I imagine that's a Kodak moment she'd prefer to forget.
If a paparazzo did attempt to snap one of Lemonia's celebrity clients, the owner, Antonis Evangelou, would be down on them like a ton of Tzatziki. The fact that this patriarch is in the restaurant every night, watching over his flock like a mindful shepherd, adds to the atmosphere of comfort and safety. As I sat there surveying the main dining room I was reminded of one of those scenes in My Big Fat Greek Wedding in which the entire clan sit down to consume some enormous meal, all talking at once. I don't think I've ever been to a restaurant in which the age range of the clientele was so broad. It's the sort of place George Michael would take his grandmother to celebrate her 90th birthday.
Lemonia originally opened in a smaller location on the opposite side of the street 23 years ago but it proved popular enough to move to its new home about 10 years later. It's a huge, gastrodome-like space that boasts three different dining areas, all serving the same basic fare. The whole place is teeming with vegetation, making it look more like some ancient, hanging garden than a High Street eaterie.
If truth be told, the food at lemonia is pretty bog standard. I had some pork chunks swimming around in a glutinous sauce that could have come out of a tin and my father-in-law complained that his chicken dish tasted faintly of metholated spirits. But the warmth of Lemonia, the feeling of good cheer, is more than sufficient to compensate for the mediocre cuisine.
"It filled up on the first night and it's remained full ever since," says Antonis. "Restaurants, they come and go, but if you have the right formula--clean floors, good food, nice ambiance, reasonable prices--people keep on coming. That's how it works for us."
The crowning moment for the owner came when Les Dennis, another local resident, mentioned Lemonia on Celebrity Big Brother. "He used to come in all the time with Amanda Holden," sighs Antonis. "I think he missed us."