Alison Craig: A taste of the past as we buy back Howie’s

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Stuffing an Edwardian bookcase into the back of the car at the Jane Street Auction I wedged myself back into the car and glanced around. A box of 100 crackers spilling out over the seats, 5,000 fliers, a lifejacket, a very grumpy dog, a lamp and eight loaves of bread. Like a slap round the chops with a kipper I knew we were well and truly back in the restaurant business.

Twenty-one years ago David, my long suffering husband, started Howies in St Leonards Street.

At that time it was called Rasputin’s, run by a very temperamental Russian chef who opened when he felt like it. So there wasn’t much goodwill when David bought it.

We sat around for many a night spouting names but none of them seemed right, then his mum said, what about your middle name? Howie. Well, that was that. Next we painted the place from head to toe and hit the auctions to buy bentwood chairs and mismatched tables. The only remnant from Rasputins was the pianola which sat in the corner, and a battered copper chandelier.

Then we opened. With no money for advertising, we just sat and waited. My dear pal Diane Lester – aka Dynamite – and I would sit in the window to make it look busy, then when someone came in we would leap up, make them sit at the window table and serve them.

I was doing the breakfast show on Forth FM in those days so I was always ready for a night out by lunchtime, Dynamite did the early news too, so the pair of us practically moved in as customers once the place busied up. It was soon hoaching so much that we regularly had to wheel the pianola over the road to Bill’s Bar, the pub across the way.

The only place it would fit was beside the dartboard so every time it came back with a few more holes in it. There are a thousand hilarious stories to tell but suffice to say, over the years the restaurant grew from one site to eight at its peak and seven when we sold Howies five years ago.

To be honest, latterly it wasn’t much fun. David had gone into it for the great people, food and fun, but the job had turned into being more like an accountant slaving over books. So we took down the battered copper chandelier and moved on.

It was strange as it felt as if a part of our lives was over forever. Walking past the place with his name on the door and not having anything to do with it took quite a bit of getting used to.

Still it meant we could go out and eat in lots of different restaurants and enjoy the experience without feeling like we were on a busman’s holiday.

Then, a few months ago, we heard the devastating news that Howies had gone into administration. It was a no-brainer – we had to buy it back.

So we did. Well, three of them. And the reasons for those three?

Well, heart ruling head as usual. Victoria Street was where we had our first date. It was Pierre Victoire then. Waterloo Place was Café 1812 when we spent our first Valentine’s Day there together. (Considering the jacket David pitched up wearing, frankly he was lucky we ever saw each other again. It was a vented cream number straight out of Jason King circa 1971.) And then Chapel Street in Aberdeen, as I’m an Aberdonian and when I was at school the eatery was Gerard’s, a French restaurant. I had my first job there as a waitress clad in a full-length blue Crimplene skirt with flowery apron on top.

On day one I dropped a bowl of spitting-hot roast potatoes on an American oilman and was thrown out there and then, still wearing the uniform. Happy days? Well sort of.

So as my car stuffed with stuff and I snaked around the streets of Edinburgh with this disparate selection of gubbins, half of me thought – what on earth have we done?

Then the other half was thinking, this is blooming great. It really was about great people, food and fun all those years ago and that’s what we intend to make it again. After we refurb in January we’ll have no spare cash so it’s going to be like the old days – friends and family, and a passion for great food but we’re determined to bring it back, alive and kicking. Oh, and guess what? The battered old copper chandelier is going up in Vic Street tomorrow – it seems we’re all back where we belong.