And that’s the position Hamiltons Restaurant finds itself in after building a rock solid reputation in recent years. Located just outside Wolverhampton City Centre, opposite West Park, it’s curiously devoid of awards or accolades from guidebooks that count. But it has something far more valuable than that – the unstinting support of a discerning band of regulars.
That’s not to say standards aren’t up there with the best of them. Hamiltons cooks at a comfortable one AA rosette level, possibly two. So it was perhaps no surprise that the lady on the other end of the phone told me there’d be no room for my friend and I at lunch. She must have sensed my dissatisfaction at the news and told me to hold while, swift as a flash, she waltzed off to the kitchen. “Hold on,” she said, returning to the phone. “The chef says he can fit you in at 2pm, if you like.” Bless. Isn’t it lovely when people try to please.
Sitting opposite was Slade drummer Don Powell, an ordinary man who has lived an extraordinary life. Having played pub gigs in Bilston and Willenhall as a kid, he found himself a regular on Top of the Pops as Slade became the biggest band of the early 1970s. Over tales of Japanese Beatles tribute bands, Robert Plant antics, what’s on Bruce Springsteen’s rider (steak and chips and a couple of beers, fact fans), drumming with Ringo Starr, headlining New York’s Madison Square Garden, booze-ups with Ozzy Osbourne and thinking Merry Xmas Everybody wasn’t good enough to be released as a single but being proved wrong every year for 45 years, we tucked in.
Service was decent. The front of house team had good command over a busy dining room and though they might at times have been a little busier or a little more attentive, they maintained a decent-enough pace while spinning metaphorical plates. Our waitress ferried food and brought drinks with aplomb. There were few reasons for grumbling, if any.
Powell was on a tight schedule and so we skipped starters and dived straight in for our mains – the perils of playing in a band that became the most successful British singles band since The Beatles and was the forerunner to Oasis. I always feel a little sorry for chefs if we don’t give them the chance to show their colours by ordering more than a course. But needs must and so, unbeknownst to the kitchen, it found itself playing a game of one-course, review-roulette.
It would either serve Powell a brilliant rock’n’roll burger fit for a man who laid down the beats for Coz I Luv You, Take Me Bak ‘Ome, Mama Weer All Crazee Now, Cum On Feel The Noize and Gudbuy T’Jane or it would fail.
Happily, the chef proved himself more than fit for the task. The Hamilton’s Burger, a 6oz beef burger, brioche bun, tomato, gem lettuce and classic burger sauce served with skinny fries and extra cheese, was met with Powell’s purring approval. The burger was moist and tender, the bun buttery and rich, the burger sauce dribblingly good and the fries an exercise in maximum crunch.
“This is alright,” said Powell, as he tucked in. And, as all Black Country types know, there is no higher praise that those three little words when delivered by a man of this parish. While flouncy, hyperbolic types with degrees in verbosity (why are you looking at me?) might compare burgers to angels and lie about chicken breasts being even more magical than, erm, singing dolphins with pierced dorsal fins, there’s no finer and truer compliment than a polite nod, a murmur of approval and a clean plate. Which is what Powell delivered.
I opted for the more rarefied delights of thyme and lemon marinated roast chicken breast supreme. It was served with sauteed potatoes with bacon, Brussel sprouts, shallots and a red currant and red wine sauce. The sprouts, presumably, were a concession to FestiveMas – we were eating just before the season for exchanging gifts – and were delicious. Al dente and served with a rich and savoury red wine sauce that was simultaneously sweet and piquant, they’d been cooked with skill. The same couldn’t be said of the small, sautéed new potatoes, unfortunately, which were undercooked. Bullet-hard potatoes is never a good look, though it was the only failing in an otherwise delightful lunch. The chicken was masterful. With crisp skin and a deliciously moist inner, it had been seasoned with skill and precision by a chef of obvious talent. Onions and small pieces of bacon completed the dish and by the time we’d finished the restaurant was as empty as our plates.
It would have been churlish to stick around for dessert. The staff no doubt wanted to give the place a good clean before afternoon teas and evening service and having been the beneficiaries of their kindness when it might have been easier to turn us away, we didn’t want to interrupt proceedings.
The kitchen had performed well with its one-shot lunch, service had been decent and a perfectly respectable, try-it-if-you’ve-got-time score of eight out of ten had been bagged.
Wolverhampton doesn’t have a great reputation for food. Unlike its near neighbours, Shropshire and Birmingham, it’s been left behind in the rush to develop a gourmet offering. It’s curious that that should be so – after all, Wolverhampton has much in common with its rural sister and large, Second City rival. You’d have thought more restaurateurs would plug the gap and help to boost its reputation.
But the absence of decent dining options means that those with a little quality really do stand out. And Hamilton’s does precisely that. An affordable menu – our lunch, with drinks, was less than £30 – a pleasant front of house team and a chef who knows how to match decent flavours, dress a plate with finesse and let the flavours do the talking are the Hamilton’s USP. And having fared brilliantly over the past five years or so, there’s no reason to suspect its run of success won’t continue.