This restaurant is anything but a shambles
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020
It was one of the most at-risk buildings in the country at one time - now this place is an award winner.
There were squeals of delight from Rebecca Lysaght when her café/bistro in North Walsham was named Best Newcomer in the Eat Norfolk Food and Drink Awards 2019.
Not only did family-run eatery Shambles beat off stiff competition to take the prize, but it was also Rebecca's birthday - what a way to celebrate.
"It was absolutely mind-blowingly brilliant," she recalls happily. "I didn't think there'd be any chance of us winning so I treated it as a birthday outing. When they announced us as winners I thought I was going to faint. It was spectacular. What a great birthday present."
At the time of the win the restaurant had barely been open a year, but was already fast becoming an important part of the community - and a second career for the former GP who had to retire years earlier following a brain tumour.
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Not-for-profit Shambles was bought was some of the lump sum from her retirement and it's fair to say both she and husband David (who runs the business day-to-day alongside their two daughters and son) needed a lot of foresight. The 16th century former weavers barn was at the top of the at-risk property list. "But I absolutely fell in love with this mouldering heap. It was leaking rain. It had no walls. No staircases. It was in a real pickle and everyone thought I was bonkers. But I saw the need for somewhere here for people to meet and to have more adventurous food - that was a driving force."
The family invested nearly five years of their lives doing the building up. Running out of money. Stopping. Restarting. Grafting themselves and working with local craftspeople. A saving grace came in the form of an EU LEADER grant, enabling them to install a commercial kitchen and open in November 2018.
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And it's a pretty indescribable place. Downstairs is all wooden tables, vibrant colours and Moroccan textiles, while upstairs has a Regency feel, with a giant grandfather clock, squishy sofas and huge rugs. It's upstairs that has been a big draw to the community hub. "We brought up four kids in North Walsham," Rebecca continues, "and that's why we've made this not-for-profit. I wanted it to be as viable as possible. Somewhere for groups to meet. We have book groups, local businesses, crafters and others using the upstairs space."
Quality of food was, of course, key too. "There were a lot of takeaways in the area. Not really anywhere to buy a fresh salad or anything inspiringly healthy."
Inspiring is certainly an attribute the food at Shambles can claim, with head chef Simon (formerly of The Lifeboat in Thornham) creating rafts of carefully handmade dishes, many with a Middle Eastern or southern Med feel. Simon uses local, seasonal and fresh ingredients and even blends, roasts and grinds his own spice mixes.
Food is available Tuesday to Sunday, 9am to 9pm (shorter hours on Sunday), with the day beginning with anything from a full English, to avocado and chilli on locally made sourdough, homemade granola and filled croissants.
Homemade cakes fill the counter (think carrot cake with Norton's Dairy cream cheese frosting, chocolate brownies and gluten-free lemon drizzle).
And Rebecca is immensely proud of the afternoon teas. "You get an awful lot of food - all made from scratch." A real treat, the occasion includes your choice of dainty finger sandwiches, sausage rolls, quiches, a trifle shot, brownie, meringue sandwiched with cream, Belgian chocolate and homemade citrus curd, scones with clotted cream and jam, and mini Victoria sandwich cake.
Teas come from the Nelson and Norfolk Tea Company, coffee is sourced from Freshpak in Halesworth, as is hot chocolate (in flavours such as orange and hazelnut). And Shambles is licensed too.
Lunchtime is when the eatery comes alive with colour and aromas which waft out the door, enticing passers-by. "I love Middle Eastern food," says Rebecca. "We have at lunch great big Persian bowls filled with interesting grain salads, roasted Mediterranean vegetables with feta...that kind of thing. It looks amazing. And we make our own Lebanese mountain flatbreads which can come with salad or be filled with our own falafels, our own hummus, chicken shawarma or meatballs and mozzarella."
There are simple staples too - quiches, cold cuts, fish, a vegan burger, homemade pizzas and pasta. But not chips. Fried food is 'out' says the former doctor, admitting the menu was a bit risky. "It was a gamble when we opened because a lot of people worried there wouldn't be a market for this. But we've been really busy!"
Dinner begins early at 5pm, offering small, tapas-style plates to enjoy alongside salads. Roasted beets with halloumi. Calamari. Gambas pil pil. Ribbons of flat iron steak with herby salad, Thai dressing and roasted peanuts. Pizza and pasta dishes carry through from lunchtime. And there are always bigger plates and specials, be it the butcher's cut of the day, or a whole aubergine stuffed with chickpeas, apricots, black olives nuts and almonds.
"I'm so pleased with what we have on a Sunday as well. We serve from 12noon to 3.30pm and have three roasts and a fish of the day and a guest roast. At the moment that includes a fabulous roast sirloin - that's really tender - roast guinea fowl and our own nut roast. Simon has the most amazing recipe filled with all different grains, pulses, nuts and veg. People have even asked to come and buy whole ones from us! The roasts come with huge and delicious Yorkshire puddings, cauliflower cheese, my son George's best crispy roast potatoes made with Maris Pipers grown down the road in Coltishall, and a selection of four to five vegetables.
"This is just all the food I love to eat. Simon is a fabulous chef."
So much so that Shambles is currently working on its own cookery book. "We're always asked about things like our hummus and our Yemeni style falafels! We just try so hard to make everything as good as possible."