I was at a “do” recently talking to the new boyfriend of an old friend. A cultured, intelligent Londoner, he confessed it was his first time in Yorkshire. I know. It’s beyond me too. How is it possible to get to 40-something and have never been to God’s Own County?
He looked a bit rabbit-in-the-headlights and I asked him if he needed oxygen, being so far north. He smiled nervously. Where have you been so far? I asked him. Ilkley and the moors, he said, and he liked it. He liked the pubs too, and Bettys. My friend rolled her eyes then confided she was taking him to Salts Mill on Sunday. We exchanged a knowing nod. If any place is going to convert a Southern softie, it’s going be a trip to Salts Mill in Saltaire.
If you haven’t been, you must. It’s a magnificent building in an extraordinary village. Built in the mid-1800s by Sir Titus Salt as a place to house his workers, it’s now a Unesco World Heritage Site. There are row on row of sturdy terraced houses, a hospital, a school and a wonderful United Reformed Church between the station and the canal. The architecture is glorious. These days, buildings have different purposes (cafes, shops, offices) but squeeze your eyes shut and it’s not hard to imagine the clatter of clogs on cobbles.
Salts Mill itself is a full day out. The 1853 Gallery on the ground floor houses a permanent exhibition of David Hockney’s work, the largest private collection in the world. Owner, collector and friend of Hockney, Jonathan Silver, who died in 2000, created a wonderful gallery space, filled with fresh lilies, priceless Burmantoft’s pottery and opera.
The first-floor Diner is quite hard to reach in that you’ve got to walk through the amazing bookshop to get to it. I defy anyone to do it in less than half an hour.
In the 20-odd years that Salts Diner’s been in existence I’ve never known a dip in standards; the offering has always been simply cooked, friendly bistro food using good ingredients and still is. The only thing that’s changed is the presentation – it’s more modern, a little more arty.
There’ve been odd additions and omissions on the Hockney-sketched menu (there can’t be a cooler caff in the land for that reason alone) but by and large old favourites remain: garlic bread Provencale, Caesar and nicoise salad, risotto, sausage and mash and the truly excellent pizza (choose from Margherita, Pepperoni and on today’s special’s board, goats cheese, butternut squash and beetroot pickle). Everything that comes out of the open kitchen has been made there. Head chef Paul Hugo has a steady hand; it’s a joy to see a chef communicating his enthusiasm for good ingredients so transparently.
We had most of the above for lunch, plus haddock mornay – a nicely cooked, pearly piece of fish and an unctuously creamy sauce accompanied by carrots with the right amount of bite and a quenelle of smooth mash. Another choice from the specials, wild mushroom ravioli, doesn’t quite have the depth of flavour we were hoping for but it’s perfectly all right. The room takes equal billing with the food: giant stone flagged floors, high brick ceilings, lots of industrial chic. A huge central table groans with a vast vase of lilies and all the papers. A smart banquette along one side is new, but the walls are still full of Hockney “snaps”, so colourful and joyful. Likewise the napkins with his cute dachshund sketched on them.
Service is sweet – unflustered, relaxed but efficient. One of the reasons this place runs like a well-oiled machine is Front of House Nigel Kay. At the helm here for 21 years, he is the smiling presence fending off the potentially clattery atmosphere; dropped plates don’t bounce on those flags but his warmth and old school charm takes your mind right off it. It must be two years since I’ve eaten here but he not only remembers me, he asks me to say hello to my mum, who I’m usually with and clearly makes an impression.
Another old favourite, sticky toffee pudding, is every bit as good as it’s ever been but needs some ice cream to take the edge off the richness; Nigel seems to second-guess this and a couple of scoops magically appear. My lunch companion, Janet Baker from the estimable Gimbals restaurant in Sowerby Bridge, is a chocolate brownie connoisseur and is keen to compare. How does it hold up? I couldn’t possibly comment. You’ll have to visit both places and judge for yourself.
There are a couple of other places to rest your weary self and eat in the mill; a tiny but cool espresso bar (great coffee and even better home-made cakes) is sometimes the best bet on a Bank Holiday when the Diner is chockablock. The unashamedly glamorous Café in to the Opera is on the floor above, where you can score the likes of twice baked cheese soufflé, cheese rarebit and posh fish pie whilst you gaze at more Hockneys.
After lunch we have a scoot round Home, the über-trendy interiors shop run by Jonathan’s brother Robin, and covet the Ercol, Hans Wegner and Eames. If ever I was offered a supermarket sweep, this would be the place I’d choose. As it is I can just about afford a packet of paper napkins.
I couldn’t resist asking my friend if her boyfriend had enjoyed his day at Salts Mill. “Lunch was delicious,” he’s reported to have said. “Very relaxing too, and comfortable; just as good as anywhere in the South but with that legendary Yorkshire friendliness you just don’t get in London. It’s a place with a lot of soul.’ Job done!
• Salts Diner, Salts Mill, Saltaire, Bradford BD18 3LB. 01274 530533, www.saltsmill.org.uk; open seven days a week, from 10am-5.30pm.