EVERY morning when I walked to work up The Moor I’d pass a little pale blue archway next to Jack Fulton’s marked Atkinsons Restaurant.
It’s actually a short distance to the department store proper and as the door was always tightly closed I long thought it was a relic of the past.
Then one day I found it open and a notice in the previously empty display case advertising lunch.
If you walk up a steep flight of stairs you suddenly find yourself in the store’s restaurant on the first floor.
Now I have always had a thing for department store restaurants. It was to such a place that I was taken, although I have long forgotten when and where, for my first proper meal out, in the days when McDonalds and KFC weren’t even a cholesterol attack on the horizon.
And it was to a department store restaurant that I took a girlfriend on my first lunchtime date. Realising I didn’t have enough money for dessert I stammered to the waitress that we were full and got funny looks from both of them.
There is no girlfriend nowadays so I had to make do with inviting the wife to an Atkinsons lunch.
She’s looking forward to it, recalling the days when stores like Atkinsons held dinner-dances and wedding receptions. And it’s not as if they’re new kids on the block. “There is a unique 137 year history of providing provisions for the people of Sheffield,” says the website proudly, promising home cooking.
The 150-seater restaurant is a bright, roomy place with plenty of space between the tables. That’s so the pensioners can get their buggies round, says restaurant boss Marie Axe.
Waiting staff in white blouses, pinnies and gloves and black skirts stand behind a long counter or bring cooked-to-order dishes such as fish and chips to your table.
The day we chose was a Thursday, when the store does a £4.30 pensioners’ special. Today it’s stew and dumplings. A non-pensioner’s portion is £6.15, as is the meat and potato pie.
Atkinsons does a good slate of hot meals: there is cod and chips (£6.40) and vegetable Kiev or country bake for £5.60. There are plenty of pensioners eating but not exclusively. And there is no canned music, just a gentle buzz of conversation, some determined chomping and the clatter of cutlery and crockery.
You can eat here and rest assured no member of staff is ever going to address you as ‘you guys.’ “No they call you dear or darling until they know your name,” laughs Marie.
It was her idea to reopen that doorway, probably the entrance in the days of dinner dances. Somewhere under the restaurant is a sprung dancefloor.
You select your meal at the counter and slide your tray, bump, bump, bump along a studded runway to the till. I order the meat and potato pie and the salmon and dill fishcake, with two pots of tea.
As I wait to pay a pensioner is bear-hugging the man at the till and complaining something she’d eaten was scorched. My goodness, I think, what would she have done if it wasn’t.
My pie is a portion from a tray, with a light, thick crust and rich tasting filling (with a dash of Relish). The roast potatoes are really light and fluffy.
“That pastry reminds me of my grandmother’s,” says my wife helping herself to a forkful.
I have mis-ordered her fishcake – she wanted fish and chips – but she’s enjoying it. “It’s nicer to eat than it looks and they haven’t stinted on the salmon,” she approves.
We go back for dessert. The cabinet looks splendid with a majestic apple pie, various kinds of Bakewells, custard tart (my favourite) and a trifle on offer. We have the last two at £1.55 and £2.10, respectively.
The tart is respectable in a homely sort of way while the trifle is reviving memories for my wife. “This is like my grandmother’s as well. Look, tinned fruit cocktail,” she says, offering me a spoonful.
Most of the dishes like the pies and stews are made in-house by chefs John Hopkinson and Andrew Mason.
It’s been a good value meal, delightful home cooking and we’ve eaten every morsel. I have longings to go back and try that apple pie. The restaurant also does soups, sandwiches, salads and quiches, as well as breakfasts and “fish teas” on weekday afternoons.
With the pots of tea (£1.50 each) we paid a total of £18.40.
“And you know what?” said my wife as we left. “That girlfriend didn’t get dessert. I did.”
Atkinsons, 78-82 The Moor, Sheffield S1 3LT.
Telephone: 0114 276 8811.
Open: Mon-Sat shop hours. Licensed. No music. Toilets off furniture department. Vegetarian dishes. Street or municipal parking.
My star ratings (out of five):