Lemonia lives in the old Chalk Farm Tavern in Primrose Hill, which is better known as the set of Paddington. It is not surrounded by fields filled with duellists under a hill of primroses these days, but it is still vast, pale and beautiful: a survivor in the sprawl. There has been a tavern on this site for so long — it was first recorded in 1678 when a corpse was carried to it — that it is possible John Keats drank here. I hope so. It is not a beaker of the warm south – it is slightly too near Camden and its stink of pigeon and bleach for that — but it is close enough.
Some restaurants hold memories of pleasure: this is one such place. It was the Tavern twice — with interruption — then the Lotus pub themed for car lovers, in a time when alcohol and petrol could plausibly mix, and then Lemonia, a Greek restaurant, for almost 40 years.
When last year I urged readers to cherish their neighbourhood restaurants or lose them, I meant Lemonia. It has the same kind of blinding identity as Oslo Court, or the Coffee Cup in Hampstead, or the Daily Mail, but with slightly better food. I cannot pretend I want to eat the Daily Mail, but I ate my sadness in the Coffee Cup when the alcohol ran out, and Oslo Court is as much a private hospital as a restaurant. Some restaurants exist for diners to pretend to be something other than what they really are: to be fashionable is really the opposite of identity. It is, at heart, monied cowardice; an uncertainty that would be forgivable if the food was not so close to ashes.
A woman can only really describe so many variations of lighting fixtures before she longs only to suck an apple, eat a wrench. They are exhausting unless you thrill to anger, and they are not about food at all. That is incidental; or, rather, they are closer to anti-food. A better restaurant will comfort you.
So I thought I would review Lemonia, which opened in 1979. Time moves slowly here, as if counted in onions; as if the generations of celebrities who eat here — or pretend to eat here — do not matter (and they don’t). The 40th anniversary banner — a gay yellow flounce, like a lemon — from 2019 is still up on the website. I find this weirdly comforting. Now it sits beside an optometrist and opposite Space NK Apothecary, which exists to try to persuade women not to stab their own faces when they see them in the mirror.
Outside there are awnings for shade; inside it is calm and unsurprising. The walls are pale plaster or exposed brick; the floors are dark; the ceiling belongs to a Victorian palm house; plants crawl about. The welcome is what you would expect from a restaurant almost half a century old: phlegmatic. As at Oslo Court, the waiters are ancient. If you prod them, a book will fall out.
The food is skilful and simple: the only difficulty is what to choose to eat. We take tabbouleh as pretty as the lost hill of primroses and hummus and pitta bread, which is still just 60p a piece. (Food is love.) Then we have chicken shashlik — sweet, charred — and a kleftiko of strange depth.
So part of Primrose Hill remains human, despite its great wealth and tall, over-renovated houses. Lemonia is evidence. I do not know if this is because the residents practise some version of inner-London cottage core, which means they resist being plated in glass and steel, and small plates of vanity, or if it is all owned by Pearly Queens.
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Lemonia, 89 Regent’s Park Road, London NW1 8UY, tel: 020 7586 7454.
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