Judged By Marina O’Loughlin, Yotam Ottloenghi, Fay Maschler and Christine Hayes
We all get old, but never at the same age. Some of us are old when we’re children, carting boxy briefcases to school and only talking to adults at family parties; others leave university with the thrill that they never have to go clubbing again. Most of us think we’re doing pretty well, but then we find ourselves tutting at the price of first class stamps and suddenly death is real.
We may snuff it, but great restaurants don’t or shouldn’t. They become institutions, auxiliary living rooms and refuges. They can outlive generations of us. Look at those plutocratic bastions, Wiltons and Rules, which have been going since God was in short trousers. Few of us chart our lifetimes through plates of Sole Meunière or roast woodcock though. But, plenty of neighbourhood restaurants, caffs and takeaways also enjoy impressive levels of longevity and become like family members to those that eat there often. A life lived in familiar restaurants is a fine thing but needn’t punish the pocket.
Stick & Bowl is a prime example. A Chinese canteen on Kensington High Street which has been churning out classic Cantonese dishes since 1971 and feeding me since the 80s. ‘Freddie’ Foo’s Formica temple wouldn’t look out of place knocking out 99 Flakes on Margate seafront or bags of chips on the Old Kent Road. It should be listed – not only for it’s architectural fixtures and fittings but for its commitment to serving honestly-priced grub in a convivial manner, 7 days a week for almost 50 years.
Although the menu reads like a corny Cantonese greatest hits album. Come on everybody, slow-clap along to Spare Ribs in Black Bean sauce or limply wave your lighters in the air to Beef in Oyster Sauce or perhaps shuffle on the dance floor to Sweet and Sour Pork. It’s all desperately predictable but that’s not the point. Pleasingly, Guangdong’s roster of siu mei are all present and correct (bar the goose), but sadly without tipping into lou mei territory – not a gizzard, tendon or pig’s ear in sight. However, this is food to moan about teachers, work and girlfriends to. It’s a roll call of consistently tasty, friendly, unchallenging dishes that have filled the stomachs of solo diners and bemused tourists, often calling out the dish numbers for fear of mispronunciation, like a game of Guangdong bingo.
But it’s also the favoured diner of Daily Mail hacks, embassy staff, Kensington Palace flunkies and Phillpino nannies to the super rich. Indeed if the pots of Jasmine Tea were suddenly brimming with gin and the Vitrolene ceiling parted to reveal a disco ball then there would be one hell of a party to be had. The gossip would flow like the Yangtze.
S&B’s enduring mural (of a bullying mob of carp rounding on a pond skipper) has witnessed immense waves of change in the area. Once a rather raffish parade, with BIBA and Kensington Market near neighbours, I can imagine countless diaphanous patchouli-soaked robes, ripped tartan trousers and purple velvet capes sweeping through the doors and sitting on the same vinyl-clad stools. Reassuringly Barbara Hulanicki and the punks, goths and club kids of Ken Market would still recognise the place instantly. Unlike the neighbourhood which has been hollowed out by cash.
I’ve been eating there since I cut my first tooth over 35 years ago. From slathering sweet soy sauce on egg fried rice as a nipper, allowing the steam from the Wonton soup to warm my spotty face whilst retaking my A-levels or sating the munchies in the summers off from university. It’s become a touchstone of my life from school, moving out, jobs, break-ups and of course the incomparable “there’s fuck-all in the fridge – shall we go to Stick & Bowl?’ evenings.
This isn’t a grand salon or a timeless institution to mark the passing of the years but this charmingly, consistent canteen has been a witness, a keeper of secrets and a reassuring port in a storm.
Daniel Foo, Freddie’s son, confided on a recent visit that the next generation have little interest in taking on the family restaurant. Should the pulleys on their dumb-waiters grind to a halt one day, it will feel like a mini potted history lived out in a small room on an assuming stretch of west London will go with it, before my sons get the chance, like me, to clamber onto one of those stools for the first time and ask for a no. 21.