The restaurateur bringing Spanish tapas to a chippy in North London

'Ed McIlroy has taken over a run-down chippy in Finsbury Park and decided to bring a corner of Barcelona to N4,' writes Cumming
'Ed McIlroy has taken over a run-down chippy in Finsbury Park and decided to bring a corner of Barcelona to N4,' writes Cumming - @tollingtons.fishbar/Instagram

‘This is the closest thing to what we’re trying to do with Tollington’s,’ says Ed McIlroy, hands resting on a marble table in La Cova Fumada, the famous seafood tapas bar in Barcelona. Around him, waiters bustle with plates of red prawns hot off the plancha (oven), pig’s head stew and their signature ‘bombas’, meatball croquettes so thick with garlic that any visiting vampires would combust. Outside, tourists and locals sip frosty lagers while they wait for a table.

Inside La Cova Fumada, Barcelona – the sort of restaurant Ed McIlroy is modelling Tollington's on
Inside La Cova Fumada in Barcelona – Tollington's is taking a page from its book - Alamy

It is a happy scene, but one that does not seem easily replicable in a chip shop in north London. Yet that is exactly what McIlroy is trying to do. At a time when so many new openings tend to the conservative – pizzas or pasta or bistro classics – he is taking a punt. After the success of his previous London venture, The Plimsoll, he could have done any number of things. Most obviously, he could have found a way to serve even more of his Dexter beef cheeseburgers, rightly praised as among the best in Britain.

Instead, he has taken over a run-down chippy in Finsbury Park and decided to bring a corner of Barcelona to N4. He has loved Spanish food since he was a child; his parents have been ‘in and out of Andalusia for 45 years’, and have a house there; Ed spent long holidays running around southern Spain.

‘There’s a gimmicky take on Spanish food in Britain which is diabolical, and nothing close to anything you eat out there,’ he says.

Brexit has made sourcing some ingredients more difficult, but there are advantages to focusing on seafood. ‘Everyone talks about going on holiday to eat seafood, but the flip side of that is they’re probably eating British seafood when they’re in France or Spain, because it gets exported,’ he says. ‘We have everything here that’s delicious. It’s just about cooking it and seasoning it the way they do it.’

While McIlroy and his team are borrowing from the Catalan capital, one marker of how far London hospitality has come along is that the exchange is going the other way, too. Frank Boxer, the founder of Frank’s Cafe in Peckham – and Brunswick House, with his brother Jackson – recently moved to Barcelona, where he has opened Canvis Nous, a handsome wine bar with surprising English flourishes, that has already been a hit.

Brit abroad: Frank Boxer's Barcelona wine bar Canvis Nous
Brit abroad: Frank Boxer's Barcelona wine bar Canvis Nous
McIlroy recently opened Canvis Nous in Barcelona
McIlroy recently opened Canvis Nous in Barcelona

As he did with Frank’s Cafe, which is atop a multi-storey car park – and McIlroy did with The Plimsoll, and is doing again with Tollington’s – Boxer has given an old building a fresh start. ‘It’s similar to the gastropub movement in London,’ he says. ‘Young hospitality people are taking over old Catalan bars and changing the offer to something that’s a bit more modern.’

Just as McIlroy has taken his menu from Spain, Boxer is working as British ambassador.

‘After we had put the menu together, we realised it felt quite English,’ he says. They make their own ‘Gentleman’s Relish’, and the star item on the menu is a fish finger sandwich. For all the abundant local produce, Boxer says one ingredient eludes him. ‘It’s impossible to get Birds Eye fish fingers,’ he says ruefully.

Life is difficult for hospitality operators everywhere. Staffing and rising costs are a problem all over the EU, not just in the UK. As long as there are entrepreneurs willing to travel, learn and take a chance – and add so much garlic that you see heaven – there are grounds for optimism. Long live the Spanish exchange.