Bistro review: John Long's Fish and Chips Restaurant
39 Athol Street, Belfast Tel: 028 9032 1848
John Copeland has a feel for history and place. As the owner of John Long's Fish and Chip Restaurant, he understands better than most the concept of brand, position and offer.
When you think about it, for a product which, by definition, is as narrow and restricted as fish and chips, the idea of carving out a niche identity is not the easiest and requires imagination. Until you take a look at the John Long menu.
For Copeland, the idea of a fish and chip shop with history and legacy, as well as good food, service and attention to detail, is as good a story to tell as anyone else's.
But when you offer fish suppers using cod, haddock and whiting with batter, or without, grilled with chilli or lemon or even smoked, then you know you're on to a innovator.
With these discreet, but strategic alterations to his offer Copeland is relaunching John Long's as Belfast's seventh wonder after the Crown Liquor Saloon, the peace walls, the Linen Hall Library, Ulster Museum, Europa Hotel and Harland & Wolff Heavy Industries. And it makes complete sense.
Among his alterations are the soon-to-be-introduced smoked salmon from Walter Ewing's Shankill Road operation, his own homemade tartar sauce and a paint job in the restaurant.
But the rickety, straight-backed, four-seater formica booths remain intact, as does the collection of Matt Mackey's city photographs on the walls. He's also printing his own T-shirts.
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The key thing about John Long's is Copeland himself. His larger-than-life presence, radar permanently on full alert, and his staff as charming as they are fleet-footed, means the restaurant ticks over at rapid pace without there ever being a hint of rush. It's a step back into an industrial Belfast, when people had little time for lunch and when fish and chips was still considered as a treat.
You recalibrate your understanding of eating out, lunch breaks and quality food when you step into John Long's. It's not just a case of timelessness, it's a reminder of older values.
John makes darting visits to each booth, checking his clients are happy. He means it. If they're not, he'll quickly replace the offending dish.
I haven't actually seen him do this and the staff say it's a rare day when that happens, because there are no complaints.
So, is fish and chips without batter any good? Anyone who is on the lookout for gluten-free food will welcome this. Going out for a sit-down fish supper en famille can be ruled out as an option if one of you is gluten intolerant. With batterless fish, this problem is gone.
On a lunch outing with two colleagues earlier this week, I had a naturally smoked haddock supper. Like a large kipper for grown-ups without the over-salty, yellow glow, this was a marvel of subtlety, flavour and texture. The other two had grilled cod with chilli and grilled haddock with lemon suppers.
We all swapped a bit just to make sure. Beautifully consistent, cooked 'au point', the fish fell apart at the merest hint of an approaching steel fork. The chilli was far from overwhelming: you might like to ask for extra chilli if you like a bit of heat, but the distinct dry flavours were there. Similarly with the lemon-flavoured haddock.
The chips are clearly a big star in this production. Controversy surrounds these chips, however. John Copeland is a big fan of local produce and sources much of what he sells from Kilkeel and Ardglass. But he puts his foot firmly down on potatoes.
So far, he says, there is not an Irish potato to match those he buys from growers in Lincolnshire, where the Maris Pipers are "drier and make a superior chip".
It's impossible to argue with Copeland on this matter, which raises a timely issue, this being the year of food and drink: Is local always better? Answers on the back of a flat-bed truck, please.
John Long's is a confirmed and prominent component in the fabric of Belfast. It is historic, but offers a very modern take on fish and chips and the quality is consistently exceptional.
At the prices he's charging, it should be habit-forming, too.
Fish supper (x3) £19.80
Diet Coke (x2) £2.80