Out to Lunch: An uphill struggle, but they should get there in the end

THERE are some restaurants that deserve to be empty at lunchtime on a Friday, and others where the absence of paying customers is more of a mystery. The Hill belongs in the latter category, though there are immediate clues as to why it is not...

THERE are some restaurants that deserve to be empty at lunchtime on a Friday, and others where the absence of paying customers is more of a mystery. The Hill belongs in the latter category, though there are immediate clues as to why it is not as busy as it should be.

We arrived among a group of eight to find the doors locked against us as firmly as the gates of the Bastille. The dimly lit interior offered no immediate prospect of discovering a living soul inside.

This unpardonable state of unreadiness occurred despite the fact that phone calls had been made and a table booked. When the doors eventually opened, we were on the verge of stepping across the road to the warmth of the Sir Richard Steele, beloved of the celebrity set and proudly presented with unforced elegance just 50 yards further up the hill.

A golden French cockerel is conspicuously perched on the overhead signage at The Hill but that apart, its exterior is as unwelcoming as the weather.

Location is also an issue. The Hill sits halfway between the trendy eateries clustered around Belsize Park tube station and the international smorgasbord of outlets in Camden Lock that constantly cut prices and try to raise standards in an attempt to corner a share of the market, something The Hill obviously isn't achieving at lunchtimes.

Norman Black should know a thing or two about these things. The marketing manager for Brent Cross Shopping Centre has spent most of his working life in commercial marketing, apart from an extremely rewarding spell doing the same job for the Prince's Trust, a mission that involved such hardships as occasionally taking tea at one or other of the royal palaces. He doesn't believe The Hill is doing itself any favours.

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"The exterior is all wrong. It's difficult to form any idea of what's going on. Is this a gastropub with a serious kitchen, a pub trying to be a restaurant, or a restaurant that wants to attract passing pub trade? It's hard to tell. And as for having the doors locked when a pre-booked party arrives, that's bordering on the criminal!"

Prices are steep enough for a venue that in previous incarnations was The Load of Hay, a spit-and-sawdust pub loved by locals, and then The Noble Art, a boxing tavern with gym attached.

Muhammed Ali trained here when he was Cassius Clay and British champions Henry Cooper and John Conteh were regulars.

Despite the attentions of Rupert and Jo Clevely, those darlings of the Chelsea gastro pub set, The Hill nowadays has the haphazard feel of a restaurant finding its way.

On balance, Norman approves of the spacious French retro interior with its faded velvet seats, sturdy wooden tables and dangling chandeliers, interspersed with surprising art deco touches and a gaudy blood-red leather table with gold studs and matching tassled stools that can only have been rescued from the palace of

Saddam Hussein.

In one corner is an inviting chaise longue, in another a hearty open fire - but shouldn't the plush love seat by the door be in a darker corner? The sum of all the parts is supposed to echo Parisian decadence and it does, to the extent that I half expected to find a discarded French mistress sulking into her pink champagne.

Yet despite this unresolved atmosphere, despite the occasional oath from the kitchen, despite the disruptive clanging of cooking implements that have slipped their moorings, there is hope on the hill.

Some fine work is going on below stairs and all the staff seem very eager to please.

The wine list is extensive and the busy 'brunch' menu changes often. Our party was large enough to take on most of the fare, from rock oysters at £10 for six, to pan fried salmon with creamy mash (£15). Norman's choice was the smoked haddock omelette (£9) with spinach and a mornay sauce which he judged "a bit on the rich side" though the haddock itself was "perfection". His wild rocket and tomato salad was "good, not great".

The most enthusiastic response to a fine spread of food came from our rugby-playing South African Man of Steel, whose chargrilled aged Highland steak (£14) arrived medium rare, precisely as requested, with a handsome portion of oven-cooked fat chips and a bearnaise sauce: choron and pink peppercorn were other possibilities.

Norman's highlight was a fantastic fig and date pudding. The Hill also does a great line in chocolate brownies and a tangy, refreshing lemon cake with strawberries and clotted cream (all desserts are £5).

The weekend was almost on us and for Norman that means family time. Willing to work "every hour I need to" during the week, he regards weekends as sacred except in emergencies. "It's all about work-life balance," he said. "I have three children aged six, 11 and 14 with different interests and our weekends tend to be built around them. It's the same for all parents with children of that age, isn't it?

"My favourite part of the weekend is our long family walks into the more undiscovered parts of north west London... the rural fringes that most people never see."

His dream is a round-the-world trip, taking in Alaska and New Zealand. "I like extremes, the idea of hot springs, volcanoes, ice and fire, wilderness and the feeling of being on the edge of civilisation," he said, "the ultimate contrast to Brent Cross."

o Norman Black and friends dined with Geoff Martin

o THE HILL, 94 Haverstock Hill, NW3 (020-7267 0033).

o Lunch menu Thursday-Saturday. Sunday roasts. Excellent wine list. Champagne and canapes.

o £25 a head for two courses with drinks, £30 for three.