Walter’s, 84 Park Hall Road, London SE21 8BW (020 8014 8548). Snacks £3.80 to £5, starters £9.50 to £13, mains £19.50 to £26, desserts £7 to £7.50, wines from £19.50
It was when they started playing the original recording of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart that I knew I was in the right place. We had already had the soundtracks of both The breakfast club and Pretty in pink. Now was the time for a bit of wistful post-punk with our dinner. That’s the key to a good neighborhood restaurant. You have to know the neighborhood. The team behind Walter’s, newly opened amidst the privet and horse chestnut trees of London’s West Dulwich, clearly do just that.
‘Cause we’re all here, the comfortably pot-bellied middle-aged people who were kids in the 80s and danced and kissed to those tunes, and who may still get misty-eyed over a few bars of Don’t You ( Forget About Me) by Simple Minds. Alongside those memories, played to the dullest roar, we want a fun, creative dinner without going to town, and we’re willing to pay it right if the food is good and the portions don’t make you feel to be a cup. At Walter’s, the portions don’t make you feel like a cup. A restaurant like this will not survive special occasions. It will only work if people keep coming back; if they keep it as a reliable, kept promise. Walter’s is that place.
It’s also an intriguing case study in the post-pandemic hospitality industry. Walter’s is named after Walter Hathaway, a milliner who was the first owner of this address. It is owned by Rob Hampton and Matt Lovell, the restorers behind the Oystermen at Covent Garden. As the latter’s name suggests, this is a pure seafood restaurant, serving simple plates of goodies from British waters; a central London bistro with relatively low prices. It was a solid success and the reasonable assumption is that they would find a site for a follow-up, somewhere else firmly in Zone 1.
Instead, here they are in the particularly leafy suburbs with a totally different bistro proposition. As the pandemic devastated the restaurant industry, sages suggested that all the hot action would shift from city centers to the neighborhoods around them; places exactly like this. There are still plenty of businesses taking advantage of some good post-Covid leases, but if that also means people like Hampton and Lovell trying their hand here instead, on the site of what used to be a Cafe Rouge I Have never visited, so I’m all for it.
Because tonight, after recent reviews in Edinburgh and Swansea, Taunton and Dublin, I simply followed the No. 3 bus route 10 minutes from my home in South London, to this clean-lined space, half paneled, cleverly divided by rattan screens. I have a very well made, very cold margarita to drink, and a plate of fried friggitelli peppers to choose from, alongside expertly crafted truffled arancini, while I make my choices.
There’s nothing particularly surprising about the offering here. It’s food for oiling the conversation rather than becoming the focus of it; the kind of thing anyone who has eaten at a few restaurants over the past decade will recognize. There are four of us tonight and only five entrees so we order them all. Yes please, we will have the duck liver parfait for the table, because the table is hungry, thank you very much. It’s bright and rich and extremely well done, as you’d expect from a kitchen run by Mateusz Gosek who has spent time in important kitchens on his CV.
There are mussels in a lively chilli broth and chunks of cuttlefish braised in a mix of tomatoes, chorizo and chickpeas. There’s a scintillating ceviche of gilthead seabream and a tomato and nectarine salad with croutons, which is billed as panzanella but isn’t really one. It’s fun nonetheless. It’s a “How’s yours?” and “Alright, do you want to try some?” and “Yes please.” The attention to detail is there: the little cucumber balls with the ceviche; how the nectarines are broken down; peeling then marinating the cherry tomatoes with the parfait.
Main courses justify their £20+ prices by execution and volume. Maybe they’re getting rid of dessert orders by piling so much shiny red velvet peperonata under that slice of crispy-skinned sea bass. And, mon, it’s a good old pile of braised lentils under the sizable roast guinea fowl. They also didn’t skimp on the mashed new potatoes with the lamb rump. Tonight there’s a chick special, coated in a thick satay sauce with a nice kick of chili studded, then grilled; a smart move, given how little flavor the chick brings to the party.
If there’s one criticism, it’s that meatless dishes are clearly not on anyone’s mind. If the main course offering draws inspiration from old Italian vegetarian folds – say a risotto, or pasta or, as here, a plate of gnocchi – you just know no one is really on board. It doesn’t matter how good these gnocchi are. They could do, they should do better. Very positive, there is an extensive wine list which, on its front page, offers two wines of the week with a reduction of around 25%. Maybe it’s because they really like the wine, or they just bought too much and it’s not budging. But I’m a sucker for that stuff anyway. A bright and lively fiano from Villa Raiano is reduced from £38 to £28; a La Bioca earthy nebbiolo is reduced from £47 to £35.25.
It’s the kind of thing that will bring us back, as will the lovely service. At one point our server overhears us discussing a much loved but long gone local cafe in Herne Hill. “Oh my god,” he said. “My first restaurant job was there. I was the kitchen porter. It’s a small thing, but it’s also the very definition of the neighborhood. The desserts are designed for those who have passed through the sector. A lemon posset didn’t take, but I discovered a taste for citrus pastry cream. There’s a more successful piece of Basque cheesecake and a couple of their ice creams: a dollop of Eton mess, with meringue cubes and a crisp scoop of cherry. I note when leaving that they do brunches on weekends. Oh, and there’s a happy hour. You can also just come for a drink. There are many reasons to return. Given the dangerous proximity to my home, the chances of this happening are high.
Kevin Dalgleish, responsible for a series of food festivals in Scotland over the years, attracting an impressive list of fellow chefs, has opened a new restaurant in Aberdeen. Amuse on Queens Terrace seats 70. The launch menu with classic accents includes Orkney scallops with peas, marinière with bacon and cider mussels, lasagna of langoustines and scallops with shellfish bisque and a strawberry pavlova with lime and black pepper (amuse-restaurant.com).
Two former chefs of Brighton’s acclaimed Chilli Pickle go it alone. Kanthi Thamma, of Indian origin, and Diego Ricaurte, of Ecuador, will open the small plate restaurant Palmito on the site of a former takeaway restaurant on Western Road, near the boundary line between Brighton and Hove. The weekly changing menu will study the migration of spices from the Indian subcontinent via Europe to Latin America, representing the combined heritage of the chefs. Dishes will include clove short ribs, ginger bass and chai spiced banana. To learn more, visit @palmito.restaurant on Instagram.
Le Grand in York is opening a new restaurant called Legacy, the word for things left behind by ancestors. Unless it’s a reference to cost and what it will do to any legacy you hope to leave your children, given that the only option seems to be an eight course tasting menu at 120 £ per person. The head chef is Ahmed Abdalla who has spent time at the Skosh in York as well as the equally dashing Lucknam Park and Whatley Manor hotels (thegrandyork.co.uk).