For such a precarious way to make a living, it’s surprising how many people from all sorts of backgrounds rely on the restaurant business.
Prone to rapidly changing trends, requiring huge amounts of investment and relatively large numbers of staff, any restaurant, no matter how established, stays in business thanks to a constant juggling act bringing together quality of food, service and environment.
Yet these demands are still not scary enough to put many hundreds of people in Northern Ireland off the idea of opening for business. Even more impressive is the growth in the number of restaurants that have been established with not-for-profit motives. Take Barnardo’s Dr B’s café in Bridge Street, Belfast, which features two UK-standard award-winning cooks, both of whom manage their lives successfully despite their learning difficulties.
In Lisburn, the Stepping Stones café provides a similar business setting in which young people with learning difficulties engage with the rigours of quality and discipline imposed by customer demand. The fact that food should be chosen as a base on which to build a revenue-generating operation whose long-term view is to help get these young people into the employment chain is surprising in itself. And the fact that the quality of the food is quite as high as it is, is a very pleasant revelation.
Stepping Stones in Seymour Street is not in the busiest part of Lisburn, but it does have one or two key advantages for diners. It’s easy to park outside, it’s cheap and it has the kind of attractive dining room that you either get right the first time or never at all. Housed in a converted stone barn at the back of an ancient row of houses, the comfortable dining room is intimate yet spacious, bright yet cosy and blessed with a deck for those balmy autumn days.
On this particular weekday, the place is busy with local business men and women, mums and dads and a few children. Margaret Johnston, the head cook who puts her staff through their NVQs and supervises the cooking, says they do up to 120 covers at lunchtime during the week. At around £12 for three courses of quality home cooking, it’s hardly a surprise.
No-one is going to support a restaurant, no matter how noble its values and objectives, if the food is bad. Judging by the lunch your reviewer enjoyed there last week, there is no danger of standards slipping. Johnston is a pro and loves good food. You can tell by the simplicity of the menu. You can also tell she and her colleagues understand how the restaurant business works, as they approach it at the same level as any fully commercial business, with kids’ menus, veggie options and specials.
On today’s blackboard is an appetising list of choices for a three-courser: soups including broccoli and stilton, chicken and roast pepper or cream of mushroom, all served with home made wheaten and butter, and a tomato and feta cheese salad with pesto dressing, all at £3.50 each. Main courses include braised steak with roast veg and creamy mash, chicken and leek pie with baby potatoes and seasonal veg or chilli and lentil loaf with yoghurt and summer salad. None of these is over £6.
The tomato salad with its pesto vinaigrette is cool and tangy, the feta cheese in small cubes providing softness and warmth. A bit more feta would have balanced this better and made it perfect, but the flavour from the tomatoes is unusually strong and sunny and very welcome at the end of a wet summer.
The vast main course of chicken pie is a fine example of Ulster hospitality. Big volumes of pastry and spuds, roast vegetables and rough carrot and parnsip mash. The roast vegetables, onions and peppers are outstanding and the mash was beautifully textured and bitty. The pie itself would feed a small family. The pastry flaked but offered some resistance under the knife and the content was as generous as could be.
The chilli and lentil bake is one of the those vegetarian options meat lovers enjoy — dense without being heavy, and spicey. The accompanying yoghurt and salad make it a pleasant seasonal dish.
The lemon meringue pie is movie standard. Its size doesn’t obscure the quality, however, and the lightness of the acidic curd and fluffy merinque were delightful.
The service is charming and attentive. While there is close supervision on the one hand, the two young guys serving us are genuinely keen to do the job right and have a level of banter and interaction with customers which is enjoyable and entertaining without being overwhelming. The sense that they have the right approach to the task is ample evidence that the restaurant business is, of course, the place to learn a trade.
Stepping Stones provides four placements for young people. There is a palpable upbeat mood in this place and it is infectious. In so many ways Stepping Stones hits top marks. If you go to a restaurant for something more than the food, then here’s a place with loads of fun. And the food’s up to scratch too.