Dino's Grill & Restaurant
This swaggering Italian with the Fred Flintstone stubble and the Antonio Banderas hair is Matthew Ribeiro of Dino’s Grill & Restaurant, 76 Commercial St. You may recognise him from last Wednesday when he delivered a bacon sandwich to Jimmy Cuba, the music dealer in the market, and experienced some of Jimmy’s playful rough and tumble in return. Since Rossi’s Cafe closed this year, Dino’s Grill is now the last of the cafes to remain in business out of all those that once served the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market.
If you are weary, and the howling gale is blowing down Commercial St and you need a bolt hole, this is the cafe to escape to for a quiet cup of tea.The unremarkable frontage and the wholesale clothing stores on either side ensure it is a place where nobody goes to be seen and thank goodness for that. Once you get inside and take your place in one of the snug Formica booths, no-one can see you from the street and you can let the world recede. There is a pleasant geometry and sense of order which is calming, the honey-coloured interior induces repose and posters around the walls introduce sufficient gentle diversion, should you require it.
Quite simply, in Dino’s Grill you can relax because you are not on show, it is an unreconstructed place where everyone is a regular and tourists never stray. The clientele comprises office workers, tradesmen, and builders. Dare I say it? It possesses an exotic quality that only true connoisseurs can fully appreciate, it is not fashionable – in fact, this cafe is almost unique in Spitalfields because it is completely unpretentious.
Opening in 1958 as Nando’s Cafe, it was run by Peggy Bragoli and her husband Nando Bragoli who was the chef. The couple lived upstairs above the cafe where they brought up their son Dino who was also born in 1958. Such was their pride in their boy that in 1972 when he began to work there at the age of fourteen, they renamed it Dino’s in his honour.
Innumerable stories confirm that Peggy was the leading light, even if she never got her name on the front of the cafe. You can see the only picture of her below, taken in 1996 with Matthew, who is the current proprietor. He remembers Peggy fondly, evoking her spirit by raising his eyebrows, waving his hands and deepening his voice for dramatic effect,“She was like the devil, she would do everything, run here, come back – a small woman but a very hard-working person! To begin with, they used to open at four in the morning and shut at seven in the evening. In 1993 once she retired, she would come and work for free. She wouldn’t accept anything from me because it was her life to be here, she’d say ‘No, no please!’ when I tried to pay her. And in 2003 when she returned to Piacenta in Italy, she cried because she didn’t want to go, it was her husband who wanted to leave.”
“I started working here in 1992 and I worked very hard, and they loved me like I was family, I was the only employee and I used to go to them for Christmas.” continued Matthew in an open-hearted spirit, in explanation of how he came to take on the running of the cafe.“Business is steady now,” he confirmed, adopting a professional tone before admitting,” I had a very bad year in 2009. Many of my lunch customers are from RBS and about fifty got the sack last year, now they have other jobs they come back to me. I am lucky because Dino is my landlord and he understands. The rent increases around here are crazy, every year my office customers change because companies move in and out as the rents rise. If you have the freehold you can survive in Spitalfields but otherwise forget it.”
For years, Gilbert & George dined at The Market Cafe in Fournier St. Then, when it closed, they transferred their patronage to Rossi’s Cafe in Hanbury St and now that is also gone they come to Dino’s Grill twice a week. There was a brief limbo after Rossi’s shut when I spotted them dining at The Luxe but it just did not seem right. Now they can now be reassured that no further accommodations on the catering front will be necessary because the Bragoli family bought the freehold of 76 Commercial St in 1964 for £4,000 which means that the future for Dino’s Grill is secure.
I followed Matthew as he sprinted up the stairs to the first floor kitchen with a familiar ease that I could not quite match. There I met Enzo, the head chef, who works here with his assistant preparing full English breakfasts, liver and bacon, steak pies and pasta sauces made fresh every day, all ready to be winched down in the dumb-waiter and served piping hot to hungry customers. “Spaghetti Al Dino” is the popular house speciality, spaghetti with Bolognese and a Bechamel sauce with cheeses, topped with ham, eggs and mushrooms, and baked to perfection in a metal dish.
I was touched when Matthew handed over the photograph of him and Peggy behind the counter in 1996. Even here, working three years after her retirement, Peggy doesn’t spare a moment to look up to the camera to show us her full face because the coffee machine is a more crucial object of attention. There is something all-consuming about running these small cafes, providing a loyal service to regular customers, and now Matthew is gripped too, as he confessed to me, “I couldn’t stay at home, even if I chose. I don’t think of myself as coming to work – I love it!”
Matthew Ribeiro in 1996 with Peggy Bragoli.