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Cafe Imperial - eating out in the Fleetwood of yesterday
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Eating out in the Fleetwood of yesterday – more than fish and chips!

Whenever we have visitors one of the things I always insist on them doing is to have some of our (Fleetwood’s that is) fish and chips. And preferably to eat them drenched in salt and vinegar in the open air from a newspaper, they are packed in a plastic carton which does not enhance the flavour in quite the same way that newspaper used to. Nevertheless, they still taste better outdoors eaten with fingers than indoors on a plate. Although you can still enjoy very good fish and chips suppers in almost any Fleetwood chippy.

One popular place in the sixties was the Ferry restaurant owned by Billy Greenwood and run with the aid of his brother Harry – a happy, amiable man who was imposed on by all and sundry and never seemed to grumble, and Billy’s mother who indefatigably stood in the minute kitchen all day cutting and buttering bread and carving the various meats. To keep down the mice Mrs Greenwood had three cats in the place and while they certainly did see to it that there were no mice they were the canniest cats I ever met. When Mrs Greenwood was carving the meat or portioning fish one cat would hold her attention in some way or other while the other two would manoeuvre enough fish or meat on to the floor to keep the three of them busy for the rest of the day. Mrs Greenwood used to blame the staff for shortages and no one knew who the real culprits were.

I have been in there in recent years and can heartily recommend them for their excellent fish and chips, with portions of crisply battered fish of a size suitable for a navvy – one portion is enough for either one kid or two adults and an equally large helping of perfect chips, cooked by the friendly Gino, a large Italian chef who knew his onions when it came to fish and chips, if you’ll pardon my mixed metaphors.

The Greenwoods left Fleetwood when the railway took over the restaurant and therein lies a tragic story. Not with the Greenwoods, I hasten to add, for Billy later took the old Central Station site in Blackpool and opened a place called Tudor Bingo and made his fortune there, so the railway take-over was not an ill-wind for him in the long run. But it was for Albert Baker who owned the block of shops alongside the Ferry Restaurant. In 1938, with no thought of a war to come, Albert looked at the empty space between the Ferry office and the Belfast stores and thought, what an excellent site for a row of shops. The land was owned by the then L.M.S. Railway Company and they agreed to Mr Baker leasing it for twenty-one-years with an option to renew the lease when time was up. In those days it was a gentleman’s agreement between gentleman and, as such, always honoured to the letter. So Albert at great expense built the block of six shops, one for himself as a kipper shop and five to let. The shops had only been opened two years when the war broke out and they were commandeered by the American forces, and it was not until 1946 that Mr Baker was able to re-open his shops again after extensive re-decoration which he had to do at his own expense.

The Railway Company assured Mr Baker they would extend his lease for the lost war years and with that he had to be content, but when in 1965 he applied for a renewal of the lease it was refused and he was told that not only would the Railway Company, now British Rail and no longer gentlemen, not renew the lease but that they were taking over the shops and he would no longer own them, and that he must put them in perfect order and decoration before they did take possession. To add insult to injury they then offered the shops and the Ferry restaurant for sale to the highest bidder and thus our landlord changed without us or any of the other tenants being given the opportunity to buy, and poor Mr Baker became a tenant paying rent for the very shops he had paid to build and never did get his money back – certainly not in rents, for he was a very generous landlord and he could have charged much more rent than he did. But that’s life, I guess, and not always very nice. So my recommendation is not to depend on a gentleman’s agreement unless you can be sure the gentleman with whom you can make it stays around as long as you do.

We rarely ate at the Ferry restaurant in the Greenwood’s days, our usual haunt in the winter was the Railway dining room, known as the station refresh, where for one shilling you could have a really home-cooked meal, nothing fancy, just good food such as Lancashire hotpot with roast potatoes followed by apple-pie and real egg custard, my mouth waters thinking about it. And if you were still hungry after gargantuan portions you could have crusty home-cooked roll with Lancashire cheese. Those were the days! When the station closed down I went into the rooms above the refreshment room and saw the kitchen, a huge room with a massive fireplace and ovens and a spit large enough to have roast a large ox. The spit was there and it was probable that in the early days of the station whole carcases were actually cooked on that huge range. There were in the station first and third class dining rooms when it first opened and in the days when the Belfast boats sailed from Fleetwood probably both dining rooms would be packed with diners waiting for the boats or trains, eating mountains of food for their journeys.

Another restaurant we occasionally patronised was the Imperial on Queen’s Terrace, opposite the railway station. Like the station they made very good home-made meals, nothing fancy, just good food with recognisable names and equally recognisable shapes on the plates and, of course, with the queues for the I.O.M. boats they were packed every lunch time, but they always found time to feed us regulars.

When we went to North Albert Street we started going to restaurants closer to hand, and tried most of the nearby ones, all of which were very good in the winter but in the summer we had trouble getting tables and getting served in reasonable time. They were all dearer than the station refresh – two shillings, would you believe? Scandalous! And their portions were not as good, but what could you expect – it was waitress service, after all. Heald’s café had once been called the Grand restaurant and used to advertise shilling dinners and sixpenny teas in 1901, so prices hadn’t really risen a lot by 1960. Funny how names change over the years, in the 1900′s cakes and public places all had majestic names like the Grand, or the Imperial, but with the advent of travel abroad names had changed by the eighties to have a Spanish flavour such as El Caprice or El Camel Dungo. Now, thank goodness, they are going back to good English names we can understand such as Tandoori Curry!

The Lantern Café was very good, run by Mrs Morse the widow of Mr Morse the dentist, but in the summer the service was far too slow, so we tried Burtons Café in Albert square. Upstairs was reserved for local people and was mainly patronised by the local Bank staff and nearby traders who did not go home for lunch. Their lunches were half a crown, (twenty five new pence) and accordingly were only for the elite of the town. (The Euston at three-and sixpence was far too expensive for most business people!) There was no such thing as “foreign” food in those days, spaghetti and lasagne were unheard of and curry was highly suspect. If a dish was highly spiced and flavoured it was generally thought to be because it was off, and many a dish was returned to the kitchen with that complaint. Although we did see many awkward customers who ate half their meal and then complained and left without paying, probably to go and do the same thing somewhere else. But one local bank manager – who shall be nameless – did complain one day about the marrow fat peas (no frozen in those days, it was either fresh or dried) being hard uncooked. The waitress brought the manageress who haughtily viewed the heap of offending peas on the plate and taking a spoon tasted a few. She swallowed, shrugged her shoulders and said “They taste alright to me.” “They should do,” retorted the customer, “I’ve been chewing them for the last 10 minutes.”

First published in Life in Fleetwood issue 11, august 1991.

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