Fish and chips used to be the only takeaway food most British people knew. The National Federation of Fish Friers says there are now as many as 10,500 “chippies” in the U.K. That compares with 1,200 McDonald’s outlets.
The first fish-and-chip shop in London was opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, in 1860 in the East End. That’s also the location of Poppies of Spitalfields, where calamari rings and Dover sole are served in a venue whose retro styling presents an idealized vision of old London.
Poppies is the brainchild of Pat Newland, 68, who began his frying career aged 14 on the nearby Roman Road and, according to the Hackney Gazette, has persuaded veteran Jack “the Kipper” Sali out of retirement. I’d go to Poppies just to see the look of the place. I keep going back because I like the food.
Starters include whitebait and hand-peeled prawn cocktail, as well as the lightly cooked calamari. The sustainably sourced fish comes from Billingsgate Market each day and may include skate, halibut and lemon sole as well as the more usual cod and haddock. You can have your fish fried in groundnut oil or grilled, and it’s served with chips and homemade tartare sauce.
On the side, I always order mushy peas, Heinz beans and curry sauce. Garden peas are listed, but I haven’t come across them yet. If you’d prefer a pickled onion, you’re on your own.
The fish is fresh and moist, the Maris Piper chips soft on the inside and crisp on the outside. That’s just as well: Life is too short for floppy fries. My usual choice of lemon sole fillet with chips costs 9.95 pounds ($15.95). For dessert, three scoops of ice cream (vanilla, chocolate and strawberry) cost 3.90 pounds. Add 1.95 pounds for a cup of Illy coffee.
The look of Poppies is by Whisper Design Consultants, whose clients include Arsenal Football Club and Harry Ramsden’s Ltd., a fish-and-chip-shop chain. From the graphics through the furniture to the bright lighting, the place looks great, apart from a strip of Cockney rhyming slang along the wall.
There’s a restored 1958 AMI (Automatic Musical Instrument Co.) jukebox, and my own favorite touch is the uniform for the waitresses, whose headscarves and hairnets give them the look of wartime workers. The styling is consistent, right down to the curved-edged tables and the silver-topped sugar pots.
The service is willing and friendly. When a friend and I took a child there, she was well looked after too.
Being so close to the City financial district, where many of us enjoy a drink after work, I reckon Poppies is missing a trick on the wines, where just grape names are listed and bottles costs 12.95 pounds or 13.95 pounds. There is only one fancier option (a U.K. sparkling wine at 29.90 pounds).
If it were my restaurant, I’d ramp it up, set a charge for corkage and try stocking a few cases of Champagne to see how that sells on a Thursday night. Pretty well, I’d guess.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? Less than 20 pounds for three courses.
Sound level? About 70 decibels. (It’s the jukebox.)
Inside tip? Tables at the back are quieter.
Special feature? Mushy peas.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Perfect. It’s fun and inexpensive.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70- 75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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