I used to be afraid of going into new places. And not just regular afraid. This was real terror — the kind of knee-knocking, heavy-breathing, anxiety-ridden fear that some people (like me) feel when forced to go to the dentist and others (unlike me) would experience if, through some unfathomable chain of events, they had to walk into the tiger cage at the zoo.
I have no idea where this fear came from, but I suffered with it for years — keeping to a handful of bars and restaurants where I was a regular and knew the lay of the land, the usual disposition of the crowds, the path to the bathrooms and so forth. When I was forced by circumstance into going somewhere unfamiliar, I'd be a wreck, my animal fight-or-flight reflex revved up into the red, eyes blown wide, breath coming in short, sharp gasps. Didn't matter if it was a nice restaurant or a dive, sushi bar or biker bar. I would be in a state of full-on panic, walking through the door with my fists clenched and blood pounding in my ears.
The first time I can remember this happening was at a seafood restaurant in some small town in New York where my parents insisted on stopping for lunch halfway through a weekend trip. I was about eight, and I was terrified by everything — the menu, the waitress, the old fishing nets strung up by way of decor. One of the last times I can remember it happening was in Tampa, Florida, at a Cuban sandwich shop. There, at least, my panic was somewhat justified. It was well after midnight when I found the place steaming under buzzing, yellow lights, and the tables were packed with the kind of guys you generally only see in gangster movies — featured in the scene where said gangsters take it upon themselves to stomp to death the weird, sweaty white kid who'd just come in looking for a sandwich.
GB Fish and Chips
1311 South Broadway
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily
Fish and chips: $7.95/$12.50
Prawns and chips: $9.50/$15.50
Bangers and mash: $9.50
Pork pie: $4.50
Although my fear of new places never really disappeared, I got past it the way most irrational phobias are gotten past: with drugs, alcohol and inevitability. Even for a phobic, a head full of cocaine and Labatts Blue makes stepping under the lintel of the scabby punk bar much easier. Two whiskeys neat and a third date with a cute waitress can inspire even the most skittish fella to enter the best restaurant in town in his only jacket and borrowed shoes. And when I took my first job writing about restaurants, I discovered that some things are even more effective motivators than booze, blow and sex combined: namely, a deadline and a paycheck that I really, really needed.
It's been a long time since I required that kind of goad, though. Now I'll walk in anywhere. These days, the unmarked door, the unfamiliar room, the promise of something new is what moves me. It's what I look forward to when I wake up every morning.
Still, when I reached out to touch the front door at GB Fish & Chips, I felt the strangely familiar twist in my guts of a completely unreasonable, almost childish fear of the unknown. It was nothing more than a twinge, but the brain is a funny organ, and it remembered with startling clarity exactly how this dance was supposed to go for me — the chilly wash of adrenaline, the buzzing in my legs, the tightness across my chest. My neck went tense as if expecting a punch the minute I walked through the door.
The feeling passed almost as soon as it had come on, and when I stepped inside and took a look around, I realized what had set me off: GB Fish & Chips looks almost exactly like that Cuban sandwich place. Without the gangsters, of course, and with a different decor, insomuch as GB has some, while the Tampa joint seemed content with just damp, stained cement walls. The smell is a half a world apart, too: fryer oil, spilled beer and an occasional, vague fishiness at GB; strong coffee, cigarette smoke, sweat and cologne in Tampa. But GB has the same bones, the same claustrophobic closeness.
This building on Broadway was a computer store when Alex Stokeld (a local with family connections back to Middlesbrough, England) got his hands on it last year and opened his fish-and-chips restaurant. It looks more like the sort of place where computers might've been operated in secret, like maybe during the run-up to a nuclear war. It's a cement-and-cinderblock bunker, brightened up a little with some paint, a polished bar, posters, soccer jerseys nailed to the ceiling, a couple of TVs always tuned to international soccer matches, a few tables. But while GB (which, like EMF or KMFDM, could stand for any number of things) is short on furnishings, it's long on grub.
The place works on a counter-service system. You study the chalkboard menu while you wait in line, then tell your order to the pretty girl behind the register, find a seat (signs along the wall exhort customers to be polite, social and share their tables) and wait for your name to be called. The system is efficient even when the kitchen is busy, speedy unless you're unlucky enough to be stuck behind me. My first time through, I probably tied things up for five minutes asking questions and ordering enough food to provision a small army. Fish and chips, of course. Then bangers and mash, because I hadn't had decent bangers and mash since leaving the comforting Mick enclaves of my youth.
"Pasties..." I said thoughtfully as my eyes ran down the menu. "What kind do you have?"
"Cornish," said the girl.
"No other kind?"
"Curry? Pork and gravy?"
"Cornish, then. With crisps. What kind do you have?"
Salt and vinegar. Some weird kind of barbecue from the Walkers brand. I went with prawn, and they tasted like a cup of salty shrimp ramen dumped into a bag of potato chips and left to dry. Not bad, exactly, but also not exactly good.
In Tampa, I drank terrible, gritty espresso and chain-smoked cigarettes in the oppressive heat while I waited for what turned out to be my best-ever Cuban sandwich. At GB, I drank a bottle of Newcastle, nibbled prawn crisps and watched the unusual crowd — a couple of weekend bikers in full leathers, a family with two freckle-faced children, two twenty-somethings on a date, a hard-faced woman eating fried fish and trying to rub up against the bikers like a cat in heat. When my name was called, I went up to the counter and took my order from the hands of the cook who'd prepared it, then went back to my table, my beer, my people-watching, a line of red plastic baskets lined with fake newsprint and filled with food in front of me. Not being the patient sort, I tossed aside the little cup of tartar sauce, bathed my fish and chips in lemon and malt vinegar and dug straight in, burning my fingers, my lips, my tongue.
While the fish fry might not have been the best ever, it was the best I've found in Denver: sticks of flaky cod cut off the fillet, jacketed in a perfect, crisp, crumbling batter (which reportedly took Stokeld years to get right), scalded by the heat of the fryer and served in generous, greasy portions over a mound of proper, thick-cut chips fried the way chips are supposed to be fried — hard and fast in animal fat. These chips were the slow country cousin of the more urbane pomme frite, what Americans were copying when we started serving steak fries: crisp on the outside, burned on the ends, mealy in the middle, and perfectly suited to being drenched in malt vinegar and used medicinally for the speedy absorption of alcohol.
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The pastie is seriously historic comfort food — what a Cornish rock farmer or Welsh miner took to work as a midday snack. GB's version was like a shepherd's pie turned inside out, a British calzone full of cubed potatoes, gently spiced ground beef, carrots and peas. It was decent and dull — which means it tasted exactly like it was supposed to. Kudos to GB for accuracy, if not inventiveness. (On a return visit, I learned that the kitchen had originally made several kinds of pasties — chicken, curry, cheese-and-onion — but when no one ordered them had pretty much stopped.)
And then there were the bangers and mash — two beautiful, fat, English sausages, blistered and split from the heat of the flat grill, laid atop a pile of soothing mashed potatoes topped with grilled onions and served with a small paper cup of hot Chinese mustard. That accompaniment was so weirdly appropriate, so fusion-y and British, it made me laugh. In a place like this, the details count: the right chips, the right crisps, a book on the history of Doc Martens propped at the end of the bar. The mustard was one of those little things that make a whole meal work.
I've returned to GB several times since that first visit, stopping by in the afternoon to watch soccer and eat sausage, showing up at nine with a few drinks in me to see how the fish and chips taste when eaten in their proper state (which would be after a few pints or a couple glasses of Irish dew). They tasted fantastic, hot and fresh from the fryer. (They degrade quickly once they start to cool.) I tried the fried prawns, which were almost as good as the cod; tried the pork pie, like a ground pork sausage, boiled and served in a tiny house made of pastry; never tried the tilapia (why bother?) or the scallops, because scallops are hard to keep fresh, and even I'm not that brave.
And each time I went back to that solid little building with its big Union Jack and red plastic baskets, I found myself liking it more. Whatever quirk of nerve I'd felt that first time was long gone. And the same thing that happened all those years ago in Florida happened here, too: Once I got used to the place, it came to feel like home.