The Turkish Grill Which, In A Small Way, Brings a Divided Community Together
When I bought my house just off Ladbroke Grove in 1991 – at a price agreed the week after
George Bush Sr invaded Kuwait – the area still had a raffish charm. The pubs were filled with Irish builders, Jamaican pool sharks and junkie aristocrats. The one smart restaurant, L’Artiste Assoife, was set out in a massive old villa (now Paul Smith’s flagship store) and featured an uncaged parrot, a smelly golden retriever and the worst food I had eaten anywhere including at school.
Although Peter Rachman was long gone, there was still a sense that the terraces of dirty but elegant Victorian mansions hid his jerry-converted slums behind. Doors boasting as many as 12 bells confirmed as much. The world portrayed by Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 classic, Performance, in which Mick Jagger famously shared a bath with Keith’s then girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, was still very much alive and the scuzzy glamour was palpable.
Fast-forward 28 years and the demographic make-up of the area is unrecognisable. The effects of gentrification are well-understood in London, but I don’t think anywhere has seen as dramatic a transformation as the streets between the Harrow Road to the north and Westbourne Grove to the south. Inspired in part by another film – Notting Hill starring Hugh Grant – houses in the square gardens, terraces and crescents of the neighbourhood have become must-have accessories for Russian oligarchs, hedge fund managers and other mysterious outriders of the global elite.
Some parts remain impervious to so-called improvement. The Notting Hill Housing Trust – set up to take over some of the Rachman slums in the 1960s – owns whole blocks – and World War II bomb sites were in-filled by high-rise council estates. Here live people who inhabit an entirely different world which has little contact with or relationship to the other.
And therein lies the challenge. Notting Hill has almost unwittingly come to play host to two entirely unconnected populations: the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor. A few – but not many – people from the middle of that spectrum, like me, remain.
Three years ago our household was awoken at 1am by the sound of helicopters. Another drug deal gone wrong, I thought. But the noise persisted and grew. Opening the curtains, I was confronted by the horrific sight of a tower block transformed into a giant flaming torch. Grenfell Tower. My wife sprang up and rushed down to Rugby Portobello Trust next door – the extraordinary youth charity where she volunteers – to find its gym full of dazed survivor-families. In the end 72 died and 70 were injured. In the weeks and months that followed this appalling tragedy made the world aware of the stark divide in our community and even now the wounds are not healed.
Around that time, I became aware of an unassuming looking restaurant at the end of my road, in a poorly-located site on Ladbroke Grove. Fez Mangal – a Turkish grill and kebab take-away – always seemed busy. Aware from Twitter that mangals (Turkish for grill) were becoming a foodie phenomenon – I decided to elbow my way past the queue for the kebab counter at the front and joined a second mass of customers waiting for tables. The service was impressively brisk and transactional and soon I was seated. From my table I could see a large glassed-in charcoal grill manned by two sweating men in black T-shirts. I was transfixed, on the grill were all manner of meats, vegetables, Halloumi kebabs and even whole Tilapia fish. Soon we became regulars, either sitting in or taking away. Generally, I order the same thing, mixed Mezze to share followed by Lamb Beyti – grilled minced lamb on a skewer served over rice with salad.
Over time I became aware of my fellow diners and the mix surprised me. It seemed to comprise hungry locals from both sides of that divide. Iraqi Uber drivers and Polish builders were rubbing elbows on the impossibly adjacent tables with groups of clean-cut European hedgies. The latter love the BYOB policy and often you will see groups of chaps with bottles of very senior Burgundy or Claret eating their bodyweight in red meat cheerfully avoiding the delights of table-cloth restaurants.
Somehow, a bunch of hardcore Turkish renegades have built a successful business in my area which is truly democratic. It is testament to what a great restaurant can do – and I see Mangals doing this now all over London. And at a time when it has become a commonplace for industry types to lament the decline of the independent Fez Mangal is proof that with a Herculean work ethic and a real charcoal grill you can bring a community together in a small way, and make a few quid along the way. Occasionally someone asks me for the names of my favourite restaurants. Grandly, I reel off L’Antica Marina in Catania, Zum Zee in Zermatt and Noble Rot or the River Café in London. But in reality, the place where I am happiest and eat in more often than the rest put together is Fez Mangal. Amen to that.