The best restaurant I ever knew was not, as you might think, in Bologna or Paris but beneath the railway bridge in Royal College Street, Kentish Town, London.
From the pavement, No. 168 did not look like a restaurant. It looked like something that was not a restaurant. In a brick house of about 1830, standing a little crazy to its neighbours, net curtains covered what had once been a shop front. On the door was a sign saying "Closed". You might ring the bell and sense from within a ghost or phantom habitation, but the bell was not answered. I once only saw other diners there and they were of such arbitrary character I feel that, but for the testimony of my wife and her brother, I might have imagined the place.
Had I been a restaurant inspector for the Guide Michelin, I would have awarded Kypros Kebab House three rosettes for the cooking and three rocking-chairs or four-posters (or whatever symbol they use) for comfort. I would have added a special category, represented perhaps by three feathers clipped from the wings of angels, as instances of pure happiness. I was astonished at the wisdom of men that, in the mediocre borough which I inhabited, they could invent such a place.
The proprietors were Kypros —, and his wife, Krystalla. Kypros, as the name he used commemorates, was of Cypriot origin, a small, fat man, of a certain age, with an air of perpetual surprise. Krystalla, who was no younger, had a sweet, soft voice and suffered from mysterious pains in her legs. I once or twice saw a girl passing down the stairs, more anglicized than her aunt and uncle, who was reading physics at Imperial College or something like that.
The room contained four or five tables. The walls were decorated with souvenirs of Greece or Cyprus, raffia plates with charioteers or a plaster Venus of Melos, which are generally held to be of bad taste, but did not seem so to me, and sinister testimonials. High on one wall was a portrait of Winston Churchill in the painterly style of Woolworth's "Weeping Boy". Cut off by a counter at the back was space for a sink and a gas ring and one person. Here, Krystalla conducted her operations.
The menu did not vary and perhaps had not varied since its inauguration. Once seated, we were served the olives known as Gigantes, sliced turnips, vine leaves, smoked salmon, smoked cod's roe, grilled Haloumi cheese in olive oil and salted cucumber; then grilled lamb chops with some salad or other; then loukoumi, sweet coffee and ouzo. For some reason, the china had embossed in gold the arms of the Greek royal house, which had fled into exile in 1967.
To drink, there was retsina and mains water. I remember a guest of ours, who had not the taste for retsina, asked for Chablis. Kypros was thunderstruck at the unnatural character of the request. There was no Chablis, any more than there was tripe and onions. His commerce was quite rigid. Another guest inquired, elbows on the table, eyes shining at the lure of trivial intelligence: "Tell me, Kypros, how do you do these fantastic chops?" After a profound delay, Kypros chose out of many answers the one that most nearly corresponded to the truth. "I go to Soho to the butcher. I buy lamb chops. I give them to Krystalla. She cook them."
The place was so obscure as to be somewhat exclusive. I had been introduced by my future wife's brother, whose Christian name (Constantine) appeared to please or soothe the old couple's submerged royalism. Constantine was introduced by somebody or other and so on back and forth, like two mirrors that have been placed opposite each other. One other characteristic completed the place's exclusivity. The Kypros Kebab House was unimaginably expensive, and quite unpredictable.