Sidle your way around three feet of slick takeaway bar and you’ll find yourself stepping into a little corner of Cyprus. Holiday souvenirs dangle from the ceiling and are crammed onto shelves above the plastic tablecloths – decorative plates, miniature bottles of ouzo and a novelty ukulele. It would be unbearably kitsch if it wasn’t so sincere.
The Cypriot staff tap along to the pop music, the likes of which are rarely heard on English shores outside Eurovision, as they polish wine glasses next to some prominent no smoking signs: relics from an era when you’d puff a cloud of blue smoke and pat your belly after a particularly good plate of Moussaka.
Vivacious, gold-toothed owner George Ioannou greets me and leads me to my table. This part of the restaurant is vividly decorated with murals depicting all aspects of Cypriot life: gleefully strumming a mandolin in a high window above an azure sea, strolling sexily down a sun-soaked beach and dancing at sunset in a pair of shiny boots. We’ve all been there.
Beneath the murals are prints of photographs of parties from years past – raucous affairs where women dance on the tables and men sing and play the mandolin. Smiling people with deep tans eat plates of olives, as they have done in countless rounds of holiday snaps through the years. The images have the hazy aura of a cheap film camera, tinted with age. I’m sitting in a time capsule, disguised as a restaurant.
I briefly tear myself away from the interior décor to peruse the menu. There is plenty of choice, with kebabs cooked over charcoal starting from £9.95, fish dishes, vegetarian options and Greek classics like kleftiko (£11.95) all looking tempting. I opt to start with dolmades – stuffed vine leaves – and then try a pork souviakia kebab with rice and salad (£10.40).
I’ve barely had chance to take in the entire wall decorated with a map of Cyprus in hyper-vivid colour when my stuffed vine leaves arrive, hot but a little limp. They have a lovely lemony kick and are well stuffed with both meat and rice, and are drizzled in a warm tomato sauce that is great when mopped up with strips of flatbread.
George takes my empty starter plate away, puts it on the counter, picks up my huge main course and delivers it to me: if there are any complaints to be made here, slow service is certainly not one of them. I’ve barely got the last bit of vine leaf out of my teeth before I’m tucking into two excessively long skewers of meat, accompanied by an enormous mound of rice and a side salad of lettuce, tomato, feta and black olive (singular).
It’s clearly not cooked fresh, but the meat is tender and marbled with fat, and great with a good with a generous squeeze of lemon. The rice is fragrant with coriander, and contains a single nugget that I think I identify as a mushroom. I gently lay it on the edge of the plate and don’t think too much about how it got there.
The salad is nicely dressed, with a light olive oil with a hint of lemon, that I can well imagine eating on a terrace of sun-warmed terracotta tiles as the cicadas hiss in the brush.
Haute cuisine this is not – but that, of course, is not the point. I feel throughout my dinner, that I’m over at George’s home for dinner, eating the food his wife has prepared (and microwaved warm for ease when I’ve rolled in later than planned). George keeps up a constant chat with a chap at another table, making reference to ‘his village’ as they talk about the old country – no mention of the thirty plus years he’s run this restaurant in Bristol.
As I’m forced to admit defeat on this huge plate of food purely by the constriction of my waistband, it comes as a surprise to realise I can hear the traffic of St Michael’s Hill over the jangling Cypriot guitar soundtrack. I’m reluctantly back to reality, and it’s a much duller place than this. It’s been an experience. And I think I’d like a mural in my house.
The Kebab House
6 St Michael’s Hill
0117 921 1958
Read more old favourites: Lockside