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.
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.