The bar that's not for changing. By Angie Sammons
IT’S nine years since I last wrote about Keiths. It must have been a good night because, until just now, not a shred of it could I recall.
I learned, upon exhuming my account of events from the dark bowels of the digital underworld, that “there were people dancing on the tables... and the time before. And the time before that”.
There followed mentions of Tony Crompton, the People's Poet, the late Allan Williams in his cups, coy first dates in Sefton Park and little kids of hippies darting among the furniture.
Back in 2008, the city’s European Capital of Culture sapling was yet to bear fruit and, for the preceding 29 years, Keiths had remained pretty much a fixed point.
Eponymous owner Keith Haggis gave his bar a long overdue paint job last autumn and such is the way of the world it made newspaper headlines
Myriad student barmaids had served the same chenin blanc from the same creaking wine fridge in order to earn their one way tickets to Euston. Myriad chefs had turned out the same soup, garlic bread and Sunday nut roasts, only to then disappear to places like Hebden Bridge, handing the apron and the recipes to the next.
A lot of water and wine has flowed under the bridge since then and, it has to be said, through the Keiths soil stack. Of that we will speak no more. If you are bothered about the state of the WCs in what remains suburban Liverpool’s most enduring drinking den, then you are obviously missing the, er, point.
Stoic Keiths, celebrating its big 4-0 next year, remains something else. And now I see it through the eyes of my teenage lads, L22 born and bred, who tell me so. A few Saturday afternoons ago, I spirited them there, hub of the previous life I took for granted.
So taken were they by the level of conversation, by the raucous laughter, by the cross-cultural chatter over ancient, wobbly tables, by the age range of the punters and by the boundless cussing hubbub, that one of them spent the rest of the weekend searching “L17” on RightMove. I can’t say I did anything to discourage him.
Eponymous owner Keith Haggis gave his bar a long overdue paint job last autumn and such is the way of the world it made newspaper headlines. No rickety furniture was harmed in this emulsion exorcism which banished, at last, the infernal stains of nicotine past.
The blackboards over the bar, listing dozens of food items in tiny, practised white chalk scrawl, escaped the makeover. They have altered in time only to allow for the most modest price inflation and the odd concession to pulled pork and pad Thai.
You pay at the counter. They shout you when they are bringing it.
A wholesome bowl of pork and chickpea casserole, weighing in at just £8, comes out first, a little under seasoned, a little heavy on the tomato, its heart is set beating by a hunk of very buttery garlic bread and some cheap and cheerful Rioja (£13 a bottle)
Lamb kebab (£8.50), seven lean chunks of fairly succulent, well charred meat on a skewer, is never going to be accused of ostentatiousness, coming with white rice, a bowl of natural yoghurt and some good, fresh simple salad, presumably the idea being that you tip it all into the waiting white pitta pockets, Nazby style, and sink your big strong teeth in. For you will need them.
Cajun chicken (£7.50), another Keith’s perennial, has, according to my notes, surged in price by a mere £1 in the last decade. Alas, the portion of blackened, piquant breast is as generous as Theresa May’s view of the elderly. We would happily have paid another couple of quid to be presented with something bigger, more bang for our buck, or should that be cluck? No expense is spared, however, on butter which cascades over the accompanying delicious, if somewhat incongruous, new potatoes and more of that bright salad.
A filling, colourful Morrocan squash, Mediterranean vegetable affair with fine couscous (£7) is a lovely plate of food and verifies Keiths unwavering vegetarian credentials.
To see what the kitchen can do with meat, we request a cheeseburger (£6.50) and frivolously order a bottle of 2004 Chateau Musar (£27), Serge Hochar’s legend of the Lebanon. It seems they haven’t put the price of this up in a decade either: it retails for exactly the same in Majestic. Filled with more fruit, spice and mystery than an aisle in the L8 Superstore, it could really have done with the cork off for a couple of hours before they let it out to play, but that was never going to happen. What it did do was attract the attention of Martyn and Celia, a couple of learned wine buffs at the next table, who had travelled from Ludlow to Lark Lane to be hugely impressed in exactly this sort of way.
Dozens of new concepts and cuisines have sprung up in the city since that early first write up of Keiths. But out of that has been born a certain sensitivity to criticism among proprietors and their fans, perhaps fuelled by internet comment and forums like TripAdvisor.
“You piss one of them off, you piss them all off,” remarked one helpful hospitality insider a couple of months ago after one of our own reviewers was practically pitchforked off the internet for questioning the amount of seasoning in another restaurant’s dish.
Aye, progress comes with a price.
Not at Keiths. You get the feeling here that they are too broad shouldered to lose much sleep if you said the cheese and crackers were a bit pedestrian or the lamb in the kebab could have been marinated a bit longer to loosen it up. To labour over any of that would, again, be missing the point.
Then again, just when you think all is said and done comes that burger: rough, hand hewn, and covered in jack cheese, juicy and, frankly, among the best about. Evidence that Keiths kitchen could give any hipster street food joint a run for its money if it chose to.
Keiths, however, survives on its tried and tested, no fuss instinct for grub and wine. Lots and lots of wine. It's the ambience, different every day and the same every year, that somehow sets it apart. And that's the point.
What more (apart from a pad in Hadassah Grove) could you possibly ever want?
Keiths Food & Wine Bar
107 Lark Lane,
0151 727 4350.
All scored Confidential reviews are paid for by the company, never the venue or a PR outfit. Critics dine unannounced and their opinions are completely independent of any commercial relationships.
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind in the area: fine dining v the best fine dining, Wine bars against the best wine bars, etc. On this basis, the scores represent...
1-5: Save it for the dog; 6-9: Netflix and chill; 10-11: In an emergency; 12-13: If you happen to be passing; 14-15: Worth a trip out; 16-17: Very good to exceptional; 18-20: As good as it gets
Pork casserole 6/10; Mediterranean veggie stew 7/10; Lamb kebab 6/10; Burger 9/10; Cajun chicken 6/10; Cheeseboard 7/10
Friendly, efficient and patient
Don't go changin'