Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – Anyone for Dinner? by Ken Dunn

Now you see them…now you don’t! What? Restaurants. They come and then they go all too frequently. Although there are many very good restaurants in the TRNC we usually prefer the smaller ones patronised by the locals. It’s not just that they are often a lot cheaper but the food is just as good and they can be more entertaining, especially if they’ve only be open for a short time. One in particular is in Lapta, or maybe that should be was in Lapta. I haven’t been there for a while and I fear it may well be another casualty in the ‘disappearing stakes’. It does happen with alarming regularity.

We found out about it by sheer chance when one of the locals told us a new restaurant would be opening and he thought it was, ‘Zummwhere up there…’ waving an indolent arm in the direction of the school above the Belediye. So, one late morning I tootled around in the car, into the maze of narrow streets and spotted a sign, ‘Lemba’, with an arrow, so I followed that, saw another and a third which took me to the middle of the school playground! The kids, running around all over the place, were a little surprised as were the few staff on duty! Feeling a bit daft I asked one of the staff, ‘Lemba? Restaurant?’ Grinning, nodding and pointing he just said, ‘Yezz, yezz, over there.’ Driving very slowly through the kids I followed his direction to the other side of the playground, turned a corner and there sat a small house with a good size balcony. Doors and windows closed and shuttered, no one around, a full washing line flapping in the slight breeze.

I gave a medium ‘Hello!’ and after a few seconds a lady popped her head out from a side door so I asked, ‘Lemba?’ She grinned, nodding enthusiastically and answered, ‘Merhaba! Evet! Bu gece, bu gece!’ To my shame I had to look that last bit up using the Turkish phrase book in the car! Ahh, ‘tonight!’ So, with a cheery wave and ‘teşekkür ederrim!’ I turned the car and drove off.

That same day, in the early evening, we drove up there, the school yard empty this time, and parked the car below the house. Not a sign of life but there was a light on above a door in front of the balcony. Another, ‘Hello!’ and the lady appeared grinning broadly. ‘Come, come’, she beckoned. The view from the balcony over Lapta was spectacular, the sun setting and all the lights from the village twinkling everywhere all the way down to the sea.

Employing the ‘cartoon’ language technique, we established they didn’t have any meat or fish which did tend to limit our choice. Then the lady brightened and said,’Ah, Güveç güveç!,OK?’ That sounded more than just OK, it being a speciality Cypriot meat and vegetable stew. We nodded enthusiastically and she scuttled off leaving us there. So, there we stood… wondering… where the tables and chairs might be? The balcony was quite empty! Two small children appeared carrying a tray crowded with glass lamps, lighted candles inside, placed them around the balcony and skittered off as quickly as they had arrived.

A few minutes later and no one had appeared so we ambled, side to side across the balcony, looking down across Lapta, recognising various buildings. We then heard a sound behind us. The lady and her husband had been following us around with a table, anxious to place it wherever we wanted it! Half an hour later, after a modest collection of meze dishes, the Güveç arrived and it was… delicious! We went back to Lemba many times and the food was always excellent. Home cooking par excellence but, after the first couple of times, we understood that we needed to pre order anything as they had limited storage for fresh food. That’s when we realised that the first Güveç we’d had was probably their family meal!

The spring storms of a couple of years ago played havoc with Lemba’s balcony. The whole thing sagged alarmingly and later that same year all restaurant activity seemed to have ceased completely. We do miss it and can only hope they will start up again.

There are small local enterprises in Lapta which barely qualify as being restaurants and are more café-like but they try, my how they try, to provide what they can. Just off the main road through the centre of Lapta, and up from the church, is an open area which, today, is used by the locals for various ‘knees ups’ at the weekend. I think the Belediye run it now or at least rent it out for one off ‘jollys’. Years ago a husband and wife with a few kids tried to organise a basic hostelry there. They used a small building at the top of this open space as a kitchen but it was very basic fare. Lahmacuns, pides, and a few meze dishes were all that they offered but we thought we’d try it.

I don’t think they’d been going too long as there was mild panic when we walked in. The kids scattered and ran into the small building, Mrs just stood there, holding her pinny and grinning while Mr came over to us and humbly showed us to a table. We were the only customers. He backed away, into the building and then returned with a hand written menu. We asked for the small meze, I ordered a pide and my wife a couple of lahmacuns. He backed off again, smiling and disappeared into the building.

We could hear their voices getting a tad loud and then one of the kids shot out and ran down into the main street. A couple of minutes later he jogged back carrying a plastic bag and into the building. Mrs then came out after a short while with a few meze dishes. The meze was fine. We were half way through consuming that and the voices were raised again. Out shot the kid again and down into the street, padding back minutes later with another plastic bag. A sizzling sound came from the building and Mr came out with the lahmacuns. He returned and, yet again, voices were raised and, yes, the young lad shot down the street to return with another plastic bag.

Five minutes or more slid by and then Mr came out with my pide. I’ve often wondered what might have happened if we’d been a party of ten or more. That would have given the young lad quite a lot of exercise, as it was plain to see they had little if any ‘ingredients’ in that building. It was slow service but highly entertaining!

Other places have come and gone but all of them have been a delight. There is a character, and I think he’s still around, who ran a small restaurant in Karsiyaka and had a few tricks up his sleeve to entertain customers. Dressed in full khaki, ‘can’t see me’ army gear, he would welcome, take us to a table of our choice, beetle off, bring us drinks, meze and, with our order written down, would canter away to return very quickly with that particular dish. Then, half way through the meal would ride through the restaurant on a horse, visiting every table to make sure we were all happy! Now, that’s bizarre.

The ‘Allah Kerim’ restaurant used to be along the main road just where the Starling supermarket is now, east of Alsancak. This was taken over and run by a London Turk who was going to show all how a restaurant really should be run. He boasted of his experience in the catering trade and insisted the ‘competition’ needed to ‘sharpen up’. Totally bald, he always dressed in black and his arms were covered from wrist to elbow in jewellery, one arm silver, and the other gold. Spectacular. Again the food was good but he disappeared after two weeks, never to be seen again! The site of the restaurant is now the vegetable section of the same Starling supermarket. That does tend to tell you something.

In the early 80’s the Turkish Army dabbled briefly in all things ‘cuisine’ in that they set up modest restaurants which they used to train squaddies who would then go on to become catering staff in the numerous camps. These places were as ‘cheap as chips’, to quote a useful term, and while they existed were very popular. The menu’s offered simple fare and, dressed in full uniform, these guys served us all, in a slightly ‘gauche’ fashion and trying not to stare at us as they, I think, hadn’t ever seen Europeans before having been drafted over from the far depths of Anatolia.

One place we often used to frequent was down on the main road below Lapta. Again a very simple set up, run by a delightful family. Granny, granddad, uncles, aunts, several children and then mum, lovely lady, and dad. He was a huge bear of a man older than us, who on the second time we arrived, and every single time thereafter, greeted us as long lost family. Arms wide he would then envelop each of us in turn with lots and lots of, ‘Welcome, welcome, welcome!’ He was a lovely man, sadly gone now, but there was only one occasion when, after the ‘welcome’ routine I was totally bemused and confused.

I was over by myself one late spring, working on the house, and on one evening decided to go and see, ‘Me Dad’, a nick-name we had given him a year or so before. Being a mere male, the ‘cooking’ is not something I’m very good at so I was more than happy to use the local ‘munching holes’. So, I arrived at Me Dad’s place to find the whole family sitting around a large table in the middle of their evening meal. Undaunted by this slight ‘invasion’ to the family meal he came over, warmly shaking my hand with both of his huge ‘paws’.

He’d brought a menu and asked what I’d like to drink. Seconds later I had a cool Efes in front of me and he’d returned to the family table. I’d brought a book I’d started to read earlier and, after perusing the menu and deciding what to have, I read a couple of pages, sipping at the beer, and looked over to them. They were still busily engaged. ‘Give them a bit more time,’ I thought. A few more pages and the Efes was very low. Hand up, I beckoned for another. He brought me one immediately then returned again before I had the chance to order something.

Three more Efes beers and three more attempts to order floated by, unsuccessfully, and I gave up. They were still working their way though a veritable feast. I dropped a generous few TL’s on the table, caught his eye, pointed at the money and waved goodbye. The whole family returned that with a collective and very cheery wave, Me Dad saying, ‘Zee you Zoon!’ When I returned to home, to satisfy the ‘gurgles’ from my plumbing system, I had cornflakes that night!

Some folk surprise restaurateurs with unexpected comments. We were in the middle of a delicious lunch at a restaurant in Girne when a Brit, sitting on the next table beckoned to a waiter. As he arrived the Brit asked, with a huge smile on his face, ‘Could I have a word with the manager or owner?’ The waiter scuttled off and it seemed that some warm words of praise were to be delivered. Still smiling the Brit looked around appearing to approve of everything he saw. The owner turned up, a lady, and nodded with a smile. ‘Yes, sir. Can I help?’

The Brit stood, dropped his napkin, shook her hand and said, beaming widely, ’Oh, yes. Thank you. I just wanted to say that…. that was….that was probably the worst meal I’ve ever had!’ Ouch!

Brits in the TRNC sometimes disappoint me in their choice of cuisine, especially on a Sunday in high summer. Several restaurants offer a typically British lunchtime roast! Beef, roast potatoes, the works! How can anyone do that in temperatures in excess of of 35C plus?! But they do. I was invited by two very good friends to such an event. I have to say that it was, in fact, very good, albeit weird in such a climate. The restaurant was full to almost overflowing so we had to sit outside and that was not very good. My sunburn pain lasted for days after that.

Well, I know I’ve now moved from ‘dinner’ to ‘lunch’ but here is a final offering in the ‘lunch’ category which I will always remember. Working on the house, yet again, I’d organised a local carpenter to make doors for the kitchen units and a few other things. After turning up a few times, often with large lumps of timber, he then employed his family to help. Mrs carpenter and their kids (!) would arrive with various, quite heavy, sheets of chipboard, MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard – sorry to be technical) and assorted, very long, lengths of timber. I would be working away when they arrived and I’m sure Mrs recognised a classic male fault.

‘You no eat!’ she accused and she was quite correct. I have a bad habit of not eating while I’m in ‘House TLC’ mode. Before I had a chance to say anything she then said, ‘Now you eat!’ and thrust a large, sausage shaped, foil wrapped package at me. ‘Must eat!’ she ordered. Mr carpenter grinned and just nodded, with a gentle shrug. I opened the foil wrapped concoction. It was a medium sized bread loaf with an unidentifiable mixture inside. Mrs stood over me, arms folded, gimlet eyed to ensure I ate it. What could I do? I did as I was bid. It was one of the best, huge sandwiches I have ever devoured. The taste buds had never been happier!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.