So Long, Philip Christou
There was a hush over the market yesterday as – for the first time that anyone could remember – Gina’s Restaurant was closed on a Sunday, following the sad news of Philip Christou’s death that morning. Today, I am republishing my portrait of Gina & Philip Christou as a tribute to this remarkable couple who served the people of Spitalfields since 1961.
Gina & Philip Christou
In recent years, if you were looking for a Sunday roast in the East End then you could do no better than to go along to Gina’s Restaurant at 17 Bethnal Green Rd where Gina & Philip Christou opened just one day a week out of loyalty to their longstanding customers, many of whom had 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 when I spoke with him, “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 Asians, 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 to Philip, ‘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, because 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 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 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 – with Philip in the kitchen and Gina behind the counter – were a long-standing ritual in this corner of the East End, the focus of a particular world and one of the last places you could 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 always opened every weekend to offer a safe haven to these people, and to anyone else that wanted an honest roast dinner.
Philip with his favourite frying pan.
Gina with her favourite teapot.
Gina & Philip Christou in their restaurant.
You may also like to take a look at these other stories of Gina’s Restaurant