Restaurants come and go, at increasingly frightening pace. Cherished faves do still pepper our high streets, the kind where beloved comfort dishes never get dumped in a trendy menu overhaul, and the staff greet regulars with exuberant hugs and kisses.
One such place has also been a constant throughout much of my life: Retsina. Back when I was a gangly sixth former, the original Regent’s Park Road incarnation (a cosy sliver of a place, adorned with mosaic tiles carved from bottle corks and tightly packed waxed pine tables) was the scene for conspiratorial warm-up meals ahead of a big Saturday night at the Electric Ballroom.
The Primrose Hill regulars were so loyal, and so damn regular, it was often impossible to get a table, so we were fortunate to enjoy star treatment from our school friend Minos, owners Zeta and Harry’s hardworking son.When the restaurant moved to much larger premises in leafy Belsize Village, Minos took over as his father retired. Mum continued to deliver her steadfastly traditional dishes with panache –a melting lamb souvla, deeply charcoaled chicken kebabs and killer calamari – while son charmed all-comers with his effervescent front-of-house schtick.
It was a dynamic offering, big on flavour and personality, which peaked in 2010 when Zeta’s famous mixed grill came within a whisker of winning Gordon Ramsey’s reality TV show The F-Word.
But two years ago this month, Minos died suddenly of a heart attack, aged only 41. All those tribute clichés about being the heart and soul of the party don’t come close to doing his personality justice. He was one of life’s loud and lovable kingpins. Therefore the sense of loss, not only for his family and friends, but also hundreds of customers, was too much to bear.
The restaurant faced an uncertain future, the decades-old, effortlessly welcoming experience shattered; a deep sadness where once there had been the best kind of perennial holiday taverna vibe.Yet today, Retsina has indeed managed to carry on. The food is as “exceptional” (to quote a gushing Gordon Ramsay) as ever. Memories of Minos, whose photo adorns the walls, have started to become fondly remembered, rather than painfully raw.
On a recent laid-back Tuesday lunchtime, Zeta is on delightful form, conjuring up that holiday feeling again, with generous glasses of Kouros Patras, a quaffable un-oaked Peloponnese white. A ten-plate strong meze spread then emerges, citrus-soaked tabbouleh mixing with earthy hummus on stretchy hunks of pitta.
Squid is a tough dish to do well, in every sense of the word. Here, the generous lengths of tentacle simply melt in the mouth. Zeta reveals the simplicity of her long-standing marinade. The secret, therefore, is all in the 4am visits to Billingsgate, which she still makes personally with her husband, once, maybe even twice, every week. “You can’t trust other people to pick your fish, or meat, or vegetables really,” she says. “It’s always better to go and see what’s on offer whenever you can. That way we can always find the best squid, or anything else we need for the restaurant. And if a customer says it isn’t good enough, I always believe them and they can have something else.”Sadly, on our visit, the famous lamb souvla has only just started its slow-cook process for the dinner service, but our mixed grill, the Ramsay fave, proves a worthy substitute. The blackened crisp extremities of chicken, lamb and a naughty, fiery sausage offset their juicy inner flesh perfectly. Liver is the only thing on the vast platter that we leave any of, simply because it’s an acquired taste – that we’ve yet to acquire.
Over authentically Greek coffee, bursting with that distinctive gritty hit, we talk with Zeta, known by many as ‘mama’, about how she’s managed to find her purpose after such a tragic loss.
“What else am I going to do?” she fires back immediately. “After all these years, the restaurant is my whole social life. If I stopped work, I’d have nothing. So I carry on.”
As was the case for Minos too, Retsina is life itself. It’s an incredible tribute to our much-missed friend, with his famous room-filling personality, that his mother carries on so stoically. The restaurant hums again. Life goes on. Retsina goes on.