There are plenty of famous gastro boozers to be found scattered about the fringes of Hampstead Heath. The Magdala is perhaps a little more tucked away and less flashy than most. It’s also rather more infamous too, forever being known as the place where Ruth Ellis shot her abusive lover on Easter Sunday in 1955, for which she became the last women to be hanged in Britain.
While the bullet holes in the wall out front and the framed tabloid headlines inside hold a strange fascination, the values of another era and shockingly not really that long ago at all, the food has been another good reason to make a pilgrimage.
Without much fanfare, the kitchen has been Michelin Pub Guide recommended repeatedly over recent years. It draws a loyal weekend following as families fall off the Heath in need of roast sustenance, yet the bright downstairs bar room was also nicely busy on our Tuesday lunchtime visit. Comfortable, greying Hampsteadites enjoyed a pint and a platter while younger types held relaxed local meetings and took some sunny downtime in the unfussy interior.
We chose bubble and squeak from the lunch menu (£7.50), a dish that, on tucking in, felt a little too breakfasty for post 1pm consumption. Its flavours were nevertheless very good, herby bubble and crispy bacon a great marriage. The fried egg on top was also very crispy, which I personally like, but it would have been nice for the yolk to have stayed runny. In this case it was pretty much solid – a bullet, in fact – so the final element of this classic melange fell a little short, a little dry.
The interesting Fish Board from the main menu (£11.50) was ideal for a sharing lunch, making it a very good value choice too. Delicate whitebait were delicious on flatbread, set off with a decent scoop of very moreish celeriac slaw. Rich smoked haddock was nicely tempered with a dollop of guacamole. Scampi and the prawns in filo were lightly fried and perfectly crunchy.
As spring may finally be described as sprung, we decided the time was right for a glass of 2011 Roc d’Opale Rosé (£5.75), deeply coloured but in no way overwhelming. It would have been easy to sit in the sunshine and drink more, the leisurely pace of the Magdala’s afternoon, followed by an excursion to the top of nearby Parliament Hill all so effortless if only there was time.
But a short lunch stop was our intent, so we stood by our word. Unfortunately so did Ruth Ellis in 1955, telling the Old Bailey “it’s obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him,” thus consigning herself – and the quietly cheery Magdala – to a strange lasting celebrity.
Words: Tom Kihl
Pics: Stephen Emms