Thursday, September 8, 2011

Doing the (South) Lambeth Walk

The summer is definitely on the wane, but with the start of autumn, a new project has begun - this always makes me happy. I'm now contributing guest posts to this great local blog, Tradescant Road, which covers happenings in and around SW8.

My first post went up yesterday and was an interview with Marco Rebato, the owner of a legendary and  long established local tapas restaurant, Rebatos. You can read the full interview below, or on the site here.
“So where’s good to eat in Vauxhall then?” My mum asked, a few months ago.

I remained silent.

Ok, I hold my hands up. I’m new. I didn’t know before moving here in June, that Vauxhall, oft written off as an ugly intersection between the river and leafier suburbs, was going to be just quite as awesome as it is. And I certainly had no idea there would be so many gastronomic delights to sample.

Before living in SW8 I lived in SW2. (That’s Streatham Hill, for the postcodally challenged among us.) I wrote semi-regular reviews for the restaurants in the area, in the hope that more people would get out there and use them, because many were never very busy and I was frightened that once I found some I liked, they’d close down.

We certainly don’t have that problem in many of Vauxhall’s finest. Each time I’ve walked past Hot Stuff, or The Canton Arms, or the ever-popular Estrela, they’re fit to burst. People evidently like to go out and eat here – the strip of Portuguese cafés selling frango piri piri and calamares seem to have no shortage of takers despite their similar menus. And oh boy, am I looking forward to trying out everything in the vicinity that looks good. Recommendations are always welcome!

Rebato’s, 169 South Lambeth Road, SW8 1XW
Tel: 020 7735
Twitter: @rebatos

In the midst of the longest strip of Lusophone shops and restaurants I have ever seen outside of Lisbon stands what I now understand to be an Institution with a capital I.

Rebato’s, which has been serving South London’s finest since 1984, is still offering authentic tapas to the locals of Vauxhall and Stockwell. I had the privilege of a chat with Marco Rebato, the owner, in the elegant back room of the restaurant, and tried to find out a little bit more about the story behind this SW8 foodie legend.

Marco’s father’s family hailed from Madrid and came to take over the site, formerly the restaurant ‘La Casina Rossa’, on South Lambeth Road in 1984. At that time, he recalls, Vauxhall was not such a desirable area. The restaurant was one of only around three serving tapas in London, and was certainly the first, he says, in south London.  Tapas was something considered unusual, perhaps only eaten on holiday by many Brits, and so Rebato’s first menus were simple: tortilla, meatballs, cockles. At the time, sharing plates of food in restaurants was not altogether typical either.

Still, the lunch trade from local businesses flowed in, bolstered by office workers at nearby BT, Otis Elevators, and Freemans. As upper and middle managers at these businesses discovered the restaurant at lunchtimes, Marco says, and found no equivalents in the suburbs where the lived, the dinner trade grew as they brought back their wives and children. Some of these loyal customers remain and travel into town to visit still.

Marco is unashamedly proud of the food they serve, and his eyes light up when I ask him about his suppliers. Mostly they are London-based, and so he knows the provenance and ethos of the food. One of his oldest suppliers been providing pork to the restaurant for nearly 27 years; Pugh’s Piglets from Preston, Lancashire breeds the suckling pigs the restaurant has become famous for on Wednesdays. Specials in the restaurant are created based on the best buys from the market that particular day, which is why their vegetable and seafood dishes are ever-changing.

Having dined in the restaurant recently, I asked about the rabbit I had eaten. French rabbit, Marco grins. English rabbits are too tough, and need stewing, but these can be griddled with just a little salt. Clearly a lover of good food, I ask Marco what his favourites are from the menu. Prawns are always good, comes the answer – but the real measure of any restaurant, he says, is to try their calamares – if they’re frozen, you’re in for a bad ride. Clean squid, griddled with olive oil and salt is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Marco also has a soft spot for the food from home he remembers at Madrid dinnertimes: Spanish tortilla, salad, crisps, and a few anchovies, if you were lucky.

The goal of Rebato’s has stayed the same since its inception – to serve quality family food. I ask about the changing tastes of the clientele – is tapas more or less popular now, with the emergence of ‘small plate’ restaurants such as Polpetto and Spuntino, The Salt Yard, Caravan et al? Marco maintains that the menus change regularly, but that they are always looking for new ideas, especially in these times of austerity for all. The latest addition to the menu is called “Tapita & Chatito”, designed to get locals out eating quality food at lower prices. Sample dishes will be gambas al ajillo, tortilla, albondigas, and calamares, starting from £2.50 for smaller portions, all washed down with a chatito of wine for £1.50. 

As well as being passionate about food, Mr. Rebatos is clearly also passionate about community. He is proud of the longstanding reputation of the restaurant and its 27-year history. Contributing a £100 dining voucher as a prize for a local street party raffle, doing cooking demos at a nursery in Streatham; Marco is proud of being able to give something back – all the more important after the recent riots. People can do a lot in their local communities if they look up once in a while, he says.

It’s getting towards 7.30pm, and the restaurant’s lovely panelled bar at the front is starting to fill up. I ask Marco, finally, what he feels the future of the restaurant is. He isn’t sure. Vauxhall is still changing; he feels there aren’t so many families, or businesses here anymore. He hopes that the area’s transient nature will not impact too heavily and will allow his family to continue his legacy. With a head chef, a manager and sous chef of 25, 26 and 12 years’ service respectively, it’s not just the local community that would be at a loss if this restaurant ever had to close its doors.

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