London is eating itself. Its skyline is being pumped-up for profit, its old-world boozers are being bought out by chains with central offices, and its restaurants are all run by big-name head chefs that nobody’s actually heard of. But beneath this city-wide originality-vacuum there still exists a world where meat is cooked with love not electromagnetic radiation, recipes are inherited not learned, and restaurants don’t employ social-media experts to compose “lolzy” tweets promoting their newest brunch deal.
Tsiakkos & Charcoal, situated on a quiet residential side street in Maida Vale, is a bit like that. The very modest Greek restaurant could almost be your granny’s front room during a power cut, if it weren’t for the steel-panelled kitchen immediately to the left as you walk in.
Three steps through the front door, past the desk covered in paperwork, lighters and a very retro-looking computer game paused mid-session, you’re in the dining area, which amounts to four 3×4-foot tables and a coat rack. It’s lit only by candles and the walls are almost completely bare. Still, when we visited midweek the place was at capacity, and by “at capacity” we mean an office do of six youngish City-types without their ties on, a romantic couple and four middle-aged men talking and drinking in Greek (always a good sign).
“I used to come here as a customer in the 80s before I decided to buy it from the little old lady who ran it,” explains its owner Xen Patsialis, a tall sparkly-eyed Cyrpriot hunk of a man with a last-days-of-Saddam beard. “So she taught me to cook her menu, which I added to what I’d already learned from my mum and dad. And here we still are 20 years later.”
Tsiakkos & Charcoal’s menu is tiny, consisting of a smattering of homemade dips and starters, seven mains and two desserts. “When I go to restaurants with 30 main courses on the menu, I know they’re all going to be shit,” adds Xen. “If your lamb, pork, chicken, beef and fish are good, then why do you need more than one of each? Let the cooking do the talking.”
This is cuisine rooted deeply in a foreign culture rather than ironically ripping it off. We start with some pitta, dips and delicious basturma beef sausage followed by the house-speciality kleftiko (slow-cooked lamb “with original Tsiakkos secret recipe”). It’s all as tender as kisses. The chicken souvlaki is actually sublime.
Aside from the food, the nicest thing about Tsiakkos & Charcoal is its community feel. When Xen’s not behind the stove, he’s walking about the place chatting to customers in a baseball cap and jeans, or joking with his waiters – all local university students. A defiantly family-run business, it harks back to a simpler time when a man’s village was his world; a time before trains and global warfare and Twitter, when a man could be a celebrity just by growing a giant marrow or, as in Xen’s case, slow-cooking a piece of sheep really, really well.
By Matt Blake
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