As chippies go, this culinary institution at the heart of Belfast city is without equal.
The man in the street’s design pundit, Stephen Bailie, recently wrote a piece about the importance of the urban features that make a capital city one you’d actually want to visit. His point was that the capitals of the world are not attractive because of their position as home to the nation’s administration. They attract you because of everything else they’ve got besides.
For instance, why would anyone want to go to Canberra, the Australian capital, when you’d be far better off spending time in the likes of Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin or Perth with their beaches, opera houses, bars and bush? Given the chance, would you rather spend a weekend in Washington DC or New York City? And when you go to London, is it the austere facades of Whitehall that beckon you there? Of course not.
We go where the craic is. And that means sports stadiums, galleries, theatres, museums, bars, restaurants and, for some judges, journalists and clergymen, massage parlours.
In Belfast there is plenty of craic. In some ways, we are unusual here because the administrative institutions have become an attraction in their own right but that’s another story. No, it’s the likes of the Crown Bar, the City Hall and the Lagan Tow Path — three among the outstanding range of places in which you can go and enjoy yourself — which make Belfast a big draw. In the city’s tourism brochures you will find tons more, including the Ulster Museum, the Waterfront Hall, St George’s Market, the Black Box, the Linenhall Library, a hundred brilliant bars and restaurants and every conceivable form of live music. There’s more to come too with the future openings of the Belfast MAC theatres and art galleries, the Lyric and the Crescent Arts Centre.
But what about off-Broadway, off the beaten track? “Is there a hidden Belfast?” ask the travel writers who, until ten minutes ago, referred to our city (much to the city tourist chiefs’ chagrin) as the best kept secret in Europe. Well, yes, because behind the glossy brochures and guides to Belfast’s attractions lies an enduring, camera-shy infrastructure of craic that locals have enjoyed for generations.
For instance, Clarke’s Dance Studios, where romance has blossomed for countless couples among the Latin ballroom lessons for years, is fabulous — but outside the immediate circle of Belfast people and professional dancers is virtually unknown; the Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT) which has conferred on the city a dusting of Left Bank intellectual charm and sexiness with its lusty subtitled foreign movies exploring every possible human condition is very clubby and those who go there have that local swagger because they feel they are among the anointed ones. And then there’s Long’s Fish & Chips, the holiest of holy culinary shrines, the chapel of love in which the perfect marriage of cod and Maris Piper is a story whose happy ending is repeated daily and infinitely.
Long’s stands like a lonely Slemish mountain, a proud old red-bricked edifice, a last man standing among the city centre decay surrounded by car park dereliction behind the Academical Institution or Inst, just off Grosvenor Road. The top two floors’ windows are boarded up and the ground floor’s are protected by heavy-duty steel meshing, yet the place is packed this Thursday lunchtime. There are enough little booths to seat 36 or so diners — you just turn up and wait for one to become free or get a take-away — and there is a small army of busy, smiling servers bringing instant gratification to each of us. Before we even sit down the cups of tea ordered seconds earlier after coming through the front doors are deposited on the formica table.
The handsome hulk of John Copeland, who has presided over Long’s for longer than he cares to remember, is everywhere at all times. If he’s not timing a fry, stirring and tasting the mushy peas in the big pan on the stove, he’s checking the customers are happy. When John Copeland looms up beside you and looks you straight in the eye with that twinkle and enquires: “Everything all right here?” he genuinely means it. If it’s not perfect, he will bring you a fresh plate. Copeland’s attention to detail is infinite. The food might be simple, but for him, that means it has to be flawless.
Truth is, the chips are the best in the land. Everything is better than all right. There are excellent chips in Jeffers by the Marina and the Barking Dog and Coco has real beauties. But Long’s are in a league of their own.
“That’s because they’re English Maris Pipers,” he says quietly. This defiance might seem the height of insolence in a Belfast, which has become obsessed with its image abroad as a genuine Irish city, packed with restaurants serving local produce. I’m on the side of the local produce supporters who have spent years convincing everybody that it makes sense to eat locally grown veg. But you have to respect Copeland’s view that the quality of the chip is sacrosanct and the Irish Maris Piper is too moist a potato, whereas the English one, which is more expensive, is drier and a better spud altogether if it’s chunky, golden, crispy chips you’re after. And God forgive me but he is right, because the chips are outstanding.
The cod, from Ardglass-based mongers Milligans, is the only fish on the menu today but in a few months’ time, the hake, haddock and other white fish will be back. You used to be able to get these in Long’s but the quality suffered according to John.
“Big changes in the kitchen, new equipment and extra help in the next three months will mean we can offer a broader range of fish and seafood,” he says.
In the meantime, the cod is beautifully presented. It might not be the biggest in the world but the firm moist flakes encased in the cracking batter are hot and absolutely on the mark. A few seconds either way and the fish takes on a different texture — here it’s simply unparalleled for its searing heat and juiciness. It also provides an excellent lesson in why mushy peas and their dry, heavy stickiness can play such a satisfying supporting role.
If you want to have a good old row with friends just ask the question: which is the best chippy in the city? Everyone will have a different view. Let me mark this first round with a declaration that Long’s is the king of them all, in a city of great chippies. If you’re a local let me know. If you’re a tourist, welcome to the heart of the Belfast.
Fish supper x 2 £12
Peas x 2 £2.40
Tea x 2 £2.20