Queen’s Park is on the up: a decade ago, it was decidedly rundown, then young professionals started to colonise and now you can barely move for top-of-the-range baby buggies and 4x4s. How wise of Jack Gokce in 2004, therefore, to transform a sad greasy spoon on one of its main thoroughfares into a civilised, modern, value-for-money cafe. Now he has gone further, opening for evening meals, too, seven nights a week.
Nowhere is the contrast between old and new Queen’s Park starker than on Salusbury Road where tired convenience stores and fried chicken outlets collide with chic clothing emporia and top-end delis. Jack’s very clearly belongs to the new: its bentwood chairs; solid, no-nonsense oak tables; black and white chequerboard tiled floor and beige tongue-and-groove walls nod toward the classic French bistro. The myriad tiny fairy lights in the front window are a delightful eccentricity. There is seating for about 28, plus an area at the front where lunchtime takeaway sandwich and soup customers can queue.
The cafe’s daytime clientele comprises office staff plus the middle-class mummies who are taking over the area with offspring in tow. If you aren’t over keen on the merry burbling or despairing wails of toddlers, come at night when those front fairy lights twinkle, other lights are dimmed, candles are lit and Michael Buble croons. Service is well paced and the waiting staff are charming and competent.
All-day breakfasts include bowls of muesli (with a free refill if you can manage it), fruit salad, and yoghurt and honey for the Healthy; American pancakes or French toast with maple syrup for the Modern; and fry-ups for the Traditionalists, rising to the heart-stopping (let us hope not literally) ‘Triple’ of three bacon rashers, three sausages, three eggs, tomato, mushrooms, beans, three slices of toast plus chips or hash browns for a reasonable £7.65 (£1 more in the evening).
Breads for the sandwiches include baguette, granary bap, crusty doorstopper and ciabatta. Fill with classics like prawn mayonnaise or Cheddar and Branston, or go trendy with mozzarella, roasted vegetables and sun-dried tomatoes. Many varieties cost under £3. There are numerous filled baked potato options, a soup of the day, salads and hot mains from midday. The salads and breakfast fry-ups survive into the evenings when the burger menu is seriously and intriguingly augmented (Kobe beef, wild boar, kangaroo or venison versions, anyone? Yours for £8.95 - £10.75). There’s steak with chips and Portobello mushrooms (sirloin, rib-eye or rump), or how about a hot dog with fried onions and fries?
The vegetarian burger (£7), featuring charred red pepper, Portobello mushroom, goat’s cheese and aubergine is a surprise. Rather than chop or mince the ingredients to form a burger, chef has simply cooked them to perfection and stacked them up, on a bed of fried onions, in a sesame bun. With gorgeous melting cheese and clear Mediterranean flavours, it’s hard to believe this is a healthy option. It comes with fries or, for the super-healthy, chopped salad, a zingy bowl of tomato, cucumber and spring onion lifted by masses of fresh-as-a-daisy parsley.
From the eight salads, Jack’s meaty salad (£6.10 by day, £1 extra at night) is another ultra-simple success, thanks to quality ingredients. Leaves, tomato and cucumber are topped with juicy chicken pieces and impeccably crisp, salty bacon. There’s a little pot of French dressing to add yourself. Potato skins (£3.40) are crisp with plenty of squidgy potato inside and arrive with a yummy dipping choice of sour cream and garlic mayonnaise. Top marks, once again.
Evening diners will surely expect to be able to choose a full meal but puddings are a real let down, with a modest selection including apple crumble pudding (£2.75, custard 65p extra) and Haagen-Dazs ice cream (one scoop £1.45, two £1.95, three £2.45). There’s no sign of crumble, alas, in the former. Its cinnamon flavour and sultanas are enjoyable, but the dough is soft and stodgy as it sits in a sea of okay custard. And, despite the fact that Haagen Dazs produce countless, unusual flavours, all of which could be offered just by keeping a tub of each in the freezer, the selection is that unholy old trinity of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla (staff blame lack of freezer space).
Regular tea and filter coffee come in bottomless pots. Under the delightful heading ‘Posh Teas’, you’ll find Darjeeling, decaffeinated or regular Earl Grey, peppermint, green, redbush and many more. All the usual coffee suspects are there plus hot chocolate. Fizzy drinks, juices, waters, smoothies and thick American shakes complete a comprehensive non-alcoholic list, all at reasonable prices.
Five white wines, five reds and two beers are also on offer, the list appearing as the label of an empty wine bottle on each table, a nice touch. Both whites and reds range from £12.95 to £22 and, commendably, more than half are available by the 250ml glass. At £4.75/£12.95, Spitting Spider 2006, Mclaren Vale, Australia is a delightfully zesty, fruity Riesling/Chenin Blanc/Colombard bargain. It arrives correctly chilled and stays that way thanks to its wine cooler. A jug of tap water is provided without demur.
The Last Word
Jack’s has been a great success: locals love the big breakfasts, morning coffees, hearty lunches and afternoon teas, and should find night-time dining equally to their taste, especially when it’s quite possible to enjoy a main course, side dish, dessert and half a bottle of very palatable wine for £20 including service (commendably, a 10% gratuity is suggested but not included). Desserts need to be taken more seriously but, otherwise, the simple dishes are executed near-faultlessly at this professional, friendly establishment, a continuing boon to its up-and-coming surroundings.