For those of us who grew up in 1980s suburban Dublin, “Local landmark nostalgia” isn’t something experienced too often. Aside from the odd ancient shooting lodge, most suburban buildings aren’t much older than our parents and are far less dilapidated. Anything that does need tearing down was no great shakes in the first place and is unlikely to be missed.
You could say that the Blake’s Restaurant buildings in Stillorgan fell into the latter category. The building that in its hey-day housed three restaurants, Blake’s, Pappagallo’s and Pings could never have been called beautiful. High on an elevated site, it was surrounded by an ugly, tarmacked car-park and did little to enhance the already dubious vista that was/is Stillorgan village. Indeed, its very elevation served to block the only half-decent view in the area, that of the old Stillorgan hill road with its thatched pub and quaint terrace of cottages. It’s planned demolition was never going to rally a protest crowd.
In a previous incarnation, the building was the home of the Swiss Chalet restaurant which served any meat you desired, as long as it was chicken. Even with the sense of an eight-year-old, it seemed like a ridiculous idea to me, although I guess the balance sheet at Nando’s Corp has since proven me wrong.
But back in my day (the day being the mid-eighties), the place was known as Blake’s.
Now, in the mid-eighties, we didn’t have the profusion of restaurants that we currently do. In the mid-eighties, dining out was a Big Deal. Being served boiled, disc-shaped carrots in crescent-shaped, nuclear-hot-or-lukewarm dishes by strangers was something to be revered, and reserved for special occasions. Like the Good Room. And Blake’s, where they sprinkled sawdust on the floor on purpose and every dessert came with a classy cocktail umbrella, was THE place to go if you lived in south county Dublin and had something to celebrate.
My favourite memory of the place is celebrating my confirmation there, because it coincided with my birthday. No one could knock me off my pedestal with that double-whammy of celebratory potential, and where else could you mark such an auspicious occasion but Blake’s, with chicken and chips and a Banana Boat? Stay classy, Stillorgan.
And Blake’s was the restaurant that just kept on giving, because when you got too old for eating (or was it drinking?) the Coke Floats, you could be paid to serve them. My two sisters and I all found gainful employment there. Working in the main restaurant, my sisters had the dubious honour of having to wear straw boaters as part of their decidedly bizarre uniform. It was never decided whether this headgear was utterly cringe-worthy or ironically cool. Either way, it was unhygienic.
I, on the other hand, chose to work in Pappagallo’s, or Blake’s Pizzeria as it was previously known. This smaller restaurant (sixty covers, I still remember) was tucked in behind the main restaurant, up a steep staircase, hidden from view. But inside, it was a cavernous beauty of slightly-sticky, waxed, tablecloths, terracotta tiles and candle wax-encrusted chianti bottles. The pizza chef, who was of indeterminate ethnicity but was definitely not Italian, tossed dough for the pleasure of those lucky enough to sit in the front (non-smoking!) section, and loved to burst our eardrums with his call of PIZZ-AWAY! even if us wait staff were standing right next to him, eh, waiting. There were other items on the menu (chicken cacciatore, anyone?) but everyone knew you only came to Pappagallo’s for the pizza. And it was good.
I loved that job. I took it very seriously. Customers might have heard me ask “smoking or non-smoking” as I ushered them in, but a waitress worth half her salt can tell a smoker a mille off. I was stalling, deciding whether you were going to be a good tipper and should therefore sit in my section, or a first date (nice people: a booth; not nice people: a wobbly table with chairs with the young families in the back), or welcome regulars (Tables 9 or 10), or unwelcome regulars (Tiny Table 1, worst in the house. You’re welcome).
Working in Pappagallo’s as a teenager taught me so much. How to deal with rudeness and arrogance, how to deal with understanding and kindness, how to make money, how to make a knickerbocker glory. How to get candle wax off any known substance, how to stabilise a wine-glass-laden wobbly table in under ten seconds with spirit level accuracy, how to mop a floor.
How to anticipate what people want before they realise they want it. How to be a team player.
I learned how to toss pizza dough, how to eat garlic (in my defence it was still quite exotic in the 1980’s) and how to prank newbies by sending them into Blake’s to ask the manager for a long stand. In which case they were left there. Standing. A Blake’s family in-joke.
Random, inanimate objects like those sticky, gingham tablecloths, and blunt pizza cutters, and long-handled ice-cream spoons and ceiling fans are all indelibly seared onto my happiest, formative memories.
And when I hung up my apron for the last time and got a real, adult job, I reverted to being a paying customer (good tipper, table 10). Later, when I was pregnant and had unexplainable cravings for Pappagallo’s mayonnaise, my long-suffering husband would drive all the way to Stillorgan for a take-out for his cranky wife.
The Pappagallo’s pizza ovens have been cold for over a decade now, the ceiling fans stilled, the chianti caskets quenched. For a time, Blake’s morphed into some awful beach-themed nightclub, the sawdust on the floor being replaced by sand. But now, this week, the sand and the pizza ovens and those terracotta tiles are finally no more. They’ve disappeared along with the rest of the building and its contents, torn down to make way for a shiny new development of student accommodation. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not like the suburbs are short of restaurants.
But then it’s not just rubble those diggers are loading into endless skips on that elevated site. Mingled in with the rebar and dust are some of the happiest memories of a generation of young Dublin suburbanites. It’s hard to imagine our kids getting nostalgic and weepy over a Nando’s closure. Blake’s was more than a restaurant. It was a landmark. An institution.
It really is the end of an era.