Fifty seven years ago – on 5th March 1962 to be precise – La Gaffe opened its doors for the first time. As the oldest business currently running on Heath Street, Hampstead, I thought it apt to catch up with its c0-founder, Bernardo Stella, whose idea it was to open the business. Moreover, as someone who’s been coming to La Gaffe for years, I couldn’t help but find his story fascinating. More stories to follow in the months and years to come, I promise!
Sarah: Hi Bernardo, and thank you for joining us this month. Why don’t you tell me how it all began?
Bernardo: I grew up in a small Italian village called Gessopalana, in Abbruzo. I was one of many siblings and my family was quite poor.
Unemployment was high back then and after studying at a catering college in Bellagio (in the north of the country) I was due to be drafted. I made a decision to evade military service and so joined a programme the catering school was running, so that I could travel abroad. In 1957, I arrived in Kent, to be precise Everyone else wanted to go to the capital but I had some kind of yearning for green fields – the English ‘Garden of Eden.’
Sarah: And what did you do there?
Bernardo: I worked in a restaurant as a waiter and improved my English I was happy, but after two and a half years it was clear to me that I could not progress further, so I decided to move to London. I found a job at a top-notch French restaurant in Marylebone called ‘Le Petit Montmartre’ – that served dinner to lots of celebrities of the 60’s – and started saving! I took a room in Paddington and walked back and forth between my shifts. Every year, I had to renew my resident’s permit and after 4 years I was able to apply for resident status.
Sarah: Was that the point you realised you weren’t going back to Italy?
Bernardo: Oh yes, I knew by that point that I wanted to open my own business. And I was lucky, because my boss in Marylebone was very understanding – actually, he helped and advised me quite a bit. He suggested a few areas and I started hunting – I found the advert for the property at Heath Street in the London Evening News.
Sarah: A restaurant?
Bernardo: Well, more of a worker’s cafe called the Oasis. On one side of the building was an antiques store and the other side was an estate agents.
It was about my price range and I thought I could make it look decent with a lick of paint. I persuaded a friend of mine, who was a chef, to come and work with me. We put together a menu of items you’d find in any traditional bistro in France – scampi provencale in a white wine sauce, chicken casserole, fillets mignons, escalope with sherry – and decided to bring in drinks from the pub down the road, as we didn’t have a licence at the time!
Sarah: And what happened on opening night?
Bernardo: Well. I’d thought of everything but the PR! I’d imagined that many people would show up but, as it was, we only had 3 diners all night. And they ordered omelettes! (Laughing).
Sarah: And so La Gaffe was born! But the restaurant menu was nothing like today’s…
Bernardo: Exactly. Actually, it was still called the Oasis at that time, because the people renting it to me wanted me to keep the name.
Sarah: So when did it take on its new identity?
Bernardo: A bit later on…but that’s another story!
Sarah: Bernardo, Happy 57th birthday to La Gaffe and thank you so much for sharing this story.
COVID – 19 UPDATE
LA GAFFE RE-OPENING 4th JULY 2020
There is light at the end of the tunnel!
After three very trying months of lockdown, which have been disastrous for all businesses, but necessary for public health, we now have Government permission to re-open our premises to the public.
However, Covid-19 has not gone away and we must all be responsible in our daily lives to help stop the further spread of the virus.
We have followed Government guidelines to ensure that we are ready to welcome our lovely clientele back to La Gaffe. Our already high hygiene standards have been enhanced to make sure that all our staff and guests can work and socialise in a safe environment.
Our restaurant and bar areas have reduced seating with the recommended gap between tables. There are hand sanitiser stations upon entry and we will be doing our best to reduce unnecessary contact. Seating will be staggered and reservations are preferred as we take part in the track and trace program.
We are taking reservations for our rooms. For the continued safety and wellbeing of our staff and guests, once a room is occupied, it will not be serviced on a daily basis. If your requirements are just a bed and you are happy to use the same towels and sheets for a few days, we are happy to help. Obviously, in this scenario, our rates will be reduced and we are here to help with any requests. Once a room is vacated, they are sterilised with products especially for Covid-19 and left empty for a minimum of 24 hours. This way we can provide peace of mind for all concerned.
We look forward to a time when we can return to what we were very fortunate to call normal.
Thank you to all and we look forward to welcoming you