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At Gina’s Restaurant

September 23, 2011
by the gentle author

If you are looking for a Sunday roast in the East End, then you can do no better than to go along to Gina’s Restaurant at 17 Bethnal Green Rd where today Gina & Philip Christou open just one day a week out of loyalty to their longstanding customers, many of whom have been coming since Gina & Philip first opened in Brick Lane in 1961.

“We used to open every day,” Philip explained to me with startling frankness, “but what’s the point in killing yourself when you only have a few years left?”

Looking back over half a century, Gina confessed that she cried when she first saw the Hungarian Restaurant in Brick Lane, with three filthy rooms above it, that Philip bought. “I said ‘Jesus Christ! What I have we got here? I can’t live in this,’” she shrieked, growing visibly emotional at the mere recollection of moving with her one-month-old son into a flat with no bathroom and a rat infested toilet in the yard. Gina’s father had paid for her to train for six months as a hairdresser in Regent St and Philip had set out to buy her a salon, but he could not afford one and bought the lease on a restaurant instead. “I was going to buy her a hairdressing salon but it didn’t work out,” Philip admitted to me with a shrug, “so I said, “I’ll buy a cafe, I know how to cook, how to serve customers, how to do the shopping, and my wife can be a waitress!”

“I bought it from a Hungarian Jew and people used to come in and ask ‘Are you kosher?’  So I said, ‘Yes, I am kosher,’ And I used to offer them ‘kosher’ bacon sandwiches.” continued Philip with a twinkle in his eye. “My father told him he wasn’t good enough, when he asked if he could marry me,” interrupted Gina, raising a hand and turning sentimental as she recalled how they met when she joined her father for lunch at the Kennington restaurant where Philip was a waiter – adding, “but afterwards, he said, ‘As long as it’s alright with her.’”

“When we moved in, I went to Gostins, the timber merchants across the road and said, ‘Excuse me, I’m looking for old wallpaper books that you’re going to give away. I ‘ve got no money but I need wallpaper.’” Philip told me, amazed at his own resourcefulness “I papered the cafe with all the different coloured squares of wallpaper and painted the woodwork with some old blue paint my brother gave me. We opened up the cafe and we made a few bob, five pounds on the first day. It was good.”

“We had no furniture,” Gina announced with a gleeful smile, “My parents moved in, so I cleaned up a room for them and gave them our bed. The baby slept with them and we slept on the floor. “ When Gina & Philip came to Brick Lane in 1961 it was a Jewish neighbourhood with a few Indians, but by 1975 when they left it was mostly Bengali people. “We all used to help each other,” Gina explained, “Mrs Sagar across the road was an Indian lady married to a Jewish gentleman. When she learnt I had to sleep on the floor, she said, ‘I’ve got a bed, I’ll give it to you’ and later she gave me a wardrobe too.’”

Gina & Philip found themselves at the centre of a self-supporting community. “I couldn’t afford a van, so the chicken shop across the road leant me their bicycle to go to Smithfield Market each morning to buy chops, steak and sausages, and I used to be back by six thirty to open at seven every day.” Philip remembered fondly, amazed at his former vitality.

“Every Christmas, I used to open only for the old people and give them lunch,” Gina confessed to me, almost in a whisper, as if she did not want the word to get round, “I did it for years because I felt sorry for them. And I remember it was two shillings and sixpence to stay at the Salvation Army Hostel, and they charged a penny for hot water for their hot water bottles on top, so I told the hostellers to bring their bottles round to me and I gave them hot water for free.”

Yet in these unpromising circumstances, Gina & Philip’s Hungarian Restaurant became a unlikely commercial success when some long-distance lorry drivers, who parked their trucks at Aldgate, discovered it as they walked up Brick Lane on their way to the Well & Bucket public house. “One day these men came in and asked for a ‘Mixed Grill.’” Gina said, recalling the auspicious moment that changed her life, “So I went into the kitchen and said, ‘We’ve got new customers and they want a “Mixed Grill.” He made up a big plate of meat, and they ate it all and said, ‘Thankyou very much, we’ll see you again.’ The next day there was six, and ten the day after. In a month’s time, we had a multitude and a queue outside. I became famous for lorry drivers!”

On the basis of their new-found income, Gina & Philip were able to buy a house in Haringey, permitting extra space for their growing family of four children – exceedingly fortunate, because in 1972 the council served a compulsory purchase order on the restaurant to demolish it. “I cried when we had to leave!” declared Gina with a helpless smile, confessing the lachrymose parentheses to her sojourn in Brick Lane.

“I didn’t want to buy a cafe again, so I went to work at Blooms restaurant in Whitechapel,” said Philip. “And I wanted to be a machinist, but I couldn’t do it – I was always crying!” said Gina, eagerly carrying the narrative forward, “They asked me, ‘Why are you crying?’ I said, it’s not a restaurant, there’s no people in it.’ I missed all the people, they were so friendly.”

Gina & Philip borrowed money from the bank to buy the cafe they run today in the Bethnal Green Rd and all the regulars from Brick Lane and the long-distance lorry drivers followed them – especially as they now offered bed and breakfast above the cafe too. When they arrived, the Sunday animal market was still in full swing, filling the surrounding streets, selling birds and all kinds of creatures – “We bought a goat and called it Billy, but the neighbours complained about it eating their cabbages and we had to give it back,” Gina told me, as an aside. They originally opened up as G’N'T’S, changing it to “The Steakhouse” on a whim, only to discover this attracted a crowd that was too posh, which led to the current, ultimate incarnation as Gina’s Restaurant.

“I’ve got one old boy, he comes every week  from Croydon. He’ll always have sausage, chips and beans – and eight to ten coffees.” Gina told me in affectionate reminiscence, “I’m a very soft woman, I talk to him and I feel good. I’m happy to listen to him because he lives by himself and has no-one to talk to but me.”

Sundays at Gina’s Restaurant are a long-standing ritual in this corner of the East End, the focus of a particular world and one of the last places you can get a good cup of tea for 80p. Gina told me that many of the fly-pitchers who trade on the pavement outside – constantly hassled by council officials – are pensioners who have lived their whole lives in the neighbourhood and come to sell a few of their possessions simply to afford a Sunday lunch. Gina & Philip open every weekend to offer a safe haven to these people, and to anyone else that wants an honest roast dinner.

Gina’s favourite teapot.

Philip’s preferred frying pan.

Gina & Philip Christou

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    September 23, 2011

    Oh, good people!

  2. September 23, 2011

    Reminded me of my parents early life as immigrants in London. Could have wept at the resourcefulness of these brave souls.. People did help each other out. My mum used to clean for a very nice wealthy Jewish family in St John’s Wood. We were Catholics but there was no hostility. They must have known hard times themselves as they often gave my mum all sorts of nice things. She came home with a bag full of soft toys once, all from Harrods.

  3. September 23, 2011

    I really do think that individuals and society as a whole would benefit greatly for the good if life stories of Londoners like Gina and Philip were mandatory reading at school and college and any other community and outreach center. It’s a whole different planet earth for the younger generations these days and it may have an impact to know how life can be and was before their own generations. AFter all, the young now would have nothing were it not for previous generations. I wish this couple a very long and healthy – even wealthy – life.

  4. Alan Gilbey permalink
    September 23, 2011

    Do drop in for a roast on a Sunday if you can – and help keep them keep keeping on. Now wedged between a famous artists studio, a ‘decadent’ cocktail bar and an upmarket resturant they’re a last little remnant of genorosity of spirit in an increasingly me-me-me Shoreditch.

  5. September 25, 2011

    What a beautiful story – I wish you had some pictures of them when they first started out too. How lovely that they open for other old people as a safe haven. I really enjoyed this post – thanks ;-)

  6. jondwill permalink
    September 26, 2011

    I really enjoyed reading this post and what an amazing couple. With your writing I feel as if I’ve felt their trials and tribulations through the years and marvel at their determination and goodwill towards others. Gina and Philip deserve a community award methinks!

  7. Barbara Wallace permalink
    October 2, 2011

    somone forwarded this to me and it is most interesting,and I wish these people good luck.!!!

  8. SANTINI permalink
    April 11, 2014

    I know this couple . I was work for them for waitress from 2002-2008 . they’re so hard working and so helpfull . I praud of them . I wish all my best and want to say thank you for everything done to me. Baigalmaa from Mongolia .

  9. jimmy permalink
    November 25, 2015

    Hello Gina I stayed at yours in 2011 for 5 or 6 months you and phill are ledgens so soz to hear about phill god bless x

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