How do you define the perfect restaurant? For me, it would be a little neighbourhood place where the atmosphere is always good, the food is always great, and the prices aren't too high. I want a restaurant that I can just drop in to three or four times a week on the spur of the moment and be guaranteed a friendly welcome. In New York, where I lived for five years, I was lucky enough to find such a restaurant that was only one block from my apartment. It was called Tartine and when I left I wrote a love letter to the place that was published in the New York Press. I like to think it's still in the window to this day.
I haven't had any luck finding the equivalent of Tartine in Shepherd's Bush--and, believe me, I've looked. I'm a big fan of the Bush Bar & Grill, but it's too much of a "destination" restaurant to fit the bill. The kind of place I have in mind has to be a small, intimate affair. It can't announce itself to the world with any sort of fanfare. It has to just sit there, unobtrusively, waiting to be discovered. If I'm going to make it my own, I have to ferret it out for myself.
The solution may be to move to Bayswater. Halepi, a small, family-owned restaurant on Leinster Terrace, fits the bill to a tee. I can't claim to have discovered Halepi--it's the most famous Greek-Cypriot restaurant in London--but in all other respects it's perfect.
From the outside it looks like any other bog standard high street fast food joint--it even has the word "Kebabs" on the sign--and, once inside, the décor doesn't exactly inspire you with confidence. With its plastic ivy, fake beams and brass galleons hanging from the wall, I shouldn't think it's been redecorated since it opened in 1969. But in my book such an unprepossessing exterior is the perfect disguise for the ideal neighbourhood restaurant. Halepi may look like Clark Kent, but it doesn't take long for Superman to emerge from his telephone box in the kitchen.
To begin with, there's the Manager, Christos Matsas. He's short and hairy with a gruff manner--if he was one of the seven dwarves, he'd be Grumpy rather than Happy--yet beneath the impatient exterior there's a real warmth. His eyes twinkle with a mischievous charm, like a wicked uncle, yet he's the sort of man you'd have no hesitation entrusting your mother-in-law to. He has exactly the sort of face I wouldn't mind being greeted by three or four nights a week.
Then there's the atmosphere. The word "friendly" doesn't begin to do it justice. It's like sitting in the kitchen of an extremely large and hospitable Greek family. It's one of the few genuinely democratic restaurants in London. At one table you'll spot Richard Branson wining and dining Pamella Anderson--he brought her here to celebrate her endorsement of Virgin Cola--while at another you'll see a couple of painters and decorators. If there's no table available, don't worry. Christos will send you across the street to the Leinster Arms. It's a testimony to how popular Halepi is that on weeknights you can always find half a dozen people waiting patiently at the bar.
Finally, there's the food. Now I'm not a particular fan of Greek-Cypriot cuisine--Pedigree Chum on a stick, anyone?--but Halepi makes the best of the limited resources available to it. The taramasalata was the creamiest I've ever had, while the kleftiko lamb was slow cooked to perfection. Even the Dover Sole, hardly a dish you'd expect them to get right, was first rate, right up there with the River Café.
There's no question about it: Halepi is the perfect neighbourhood restaurant. Now all I have to do is move to Bayswater. Anyone want to buy a house in Shepherd's Bush?