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Opening one of Hampstead’s best loved restaurants was not foremost on Bernardo Stella’s mind when he left Italy in 1957 to avoid military service.

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His wife-to-be Androulla was seeking refuge in London to avoid punishment for disarming a British soldier in Cyprus.

Little did they know half a century later they would be celebrating the 50th anniversary of La Gaffe.

The restaurant in Heath Street grew from humble beginnings as a workmen’s cafe in 1962 into today’s bar, restaurant and hotel.

Bernardo and Androulla, aged 76 and 74, will celebrate the milestone with a party this evening (Monday, March 5).

“We’re having a party to say thank you to our customers,” said Bernardo. “Fifty years is a happy thing, but many of our customers have passed away. The years have gone by in a flash but I always loved the work.”

The couple named the restaurant La Gaffe, meaning “the mistake”, as they joked an Italian and a Cypriot opening a French restaurant in north-west London could be nothing else.

But it quickly proved popular with the rich and famous.

Actress Maureen Lipman and her late husband, playwright Jack Rosenthal, were regulars when the restaurant first opened.

Former US president Lyndon B Johnson’s wife Lady Bird ate there, whilst boxer Mohammed Ali, movie star Clint Eastwood, and US president Jimmy Carter’s son Chip all visited in the 1970s.

Even the Queen Mother wrote Bernardo a letter praising his pate.

But he revealed the secrets to La Gaffe’s success are good food and simplicity.

“If you try to be too clever then you pay the price,” he said. “My policy has always been to treat everybody equally. I treat the dustman the same as a prince.”

He added: “My luck is my wife. I have always been a dreamer so I need someone solid like her behind me.”

His son Lorenzo, 45, now runs the restaurant.

“I am very proud of what my parents have achieved and I know the cost of it,” he said. “When people talk of blood, sweat and tears, never were truer words spoken.

“I haven’t changed too much about the restaurant and I don’t want to change much because I think what we have here is good. I don’t want to lose what is special about who we are.”

He is most proud that the restaurant has maintained the same clientele for decades.

“That’s more important that anything,” said Lorenzo. “People say they feel at home when they are here and that is the nicest thing they could say to us.”

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