At any time of day you will find at least seven fixed-gear bicycles parked outside the Belle Isle. The owners of these bikes will be inside, Red Stripe lager or some exotic, micro-brewed, fruity ale dribbling through their perfectly unkempt beards while they waffle about undercuts, bollock-popping skinny jeans and that new band that haven’t even released an EP yet so you’ve definitely never heard of them. The females wear Dr Martens, thrift shop skirts and their fringes horrendously short. They’ll be photographing each other, their drinks and, most importantly, themselves from excruciating angles, ready for an X-Pro II spruce up before sending them off to Instagram for their followers to fawn over. This is the hipster lifestyle.
And yet, here I am. Somehow it’s worth entering, treading carefully through the maze of Adidas sneakers with bright white Nike socks underneath, and finding somewhere to sit.
These bastards are here to drink stupid beer and make sure that everyone sees them doing it, but I’m here to eat.
I’ve made the god-awful decision to bring a girl here on our first date. Her name’s Grace and she’s short, with eyes that can look straight through your soul. One of her favourite hobbies is to call me a ‘fucking indie prick’ (because I listen to bands that aren’t in the Radio 1 Top 40), so taking her to the most hipster bar in Portsmouth is only going to support this opinion of hers. The worst part is that I can’t even fight against it, the agonising catch-22 of hipsterdom being that denying one’s hipster-ness only reinforces it.
Grace stands out like a T-rex at a petting zoo, with her choppy, dark hair and full black outfit. She’s sporting multiple silver bracelets and a chain necklace that wouldn’t look out of place around the collar of Biggie Smalls. She’s a gym bunny and you can tell, all the guys and most of the girls are checking out her well-squatted arse as we walk through the bar. Her name belies her true nature, though, as she’s a bit like Little Red Riding Hood with a chainsaw hidden under her cloak. I can’t help but strut next to her.
We find a free table. It’s slightly sticky, and one leg is shorter than the rest, so it wobbles. The chairs don’t match and there’s a piece of driftwood dangling off a thick length of rope, the other end of which has been threaded through a hole in our table. It has a 9 painted on it.
We sit (forgot to take her coat, shite) and I grab a couple of menus from the table next to us. Not that we need them, because the entire thing is written on a gigantic chalkboard on the wall. Grace doesn’t even glance at her menu.
‘Look at all these fucking hipsters,’ she says loudly. Several heads turn, with much swishing of beards and twanging of braces.
‘Jesus Christ, keep your voice down,’ I growl.
‘Half the people in here look like Jesus,’ Grace retorts. ‘I’m getting a drink.’ She stands up and strides over the uneven floorboards to the bar, where a mid-twenties guy waits for her, polishing a glass. Behind the bar is a wide mirror, which means I get to watch Grace’s face as she surveys the beer taps before her. Her lips tighten, eyebrows scrunch, and cheeks redden. She walks the bar twice before finally giving up and turning to the patient barman.
‘What d’you reckon?’ she asks him. He puts the glass down and bristles with excitement.
‘Well,’ he begins, resting his arm on the largest, most phallic of the taps on the bar. I wave at him and shake my head wildly but it’s too late.
‘This is our latest draft ale,’ he says, running a hand lithely up and down the hardwood pull handle, ‘the hops are turned with coffee beans,’ –Grace grimaces– ‘and eventually the beer is brewed in cherry barrels,’ –Grace dry heaves– ‘for at least six months,’ the guy finishes, grinning inanely. He pulls a shot glass from behind the counter.
‘Would you like to try some?’
‘Nooooo,’ says Grace. ‘I’m good. I’ll have a glass of rosé and he’ll have…’ She turns to me. ‘Oi! What do you want?’
I jump up and join her at the bar, giving the barman my most apologetic look.
‘Oooh,’ I say, surveying the taps, ‘they all look so good.’ I give Grace a smarmy grin and she socks me on the arm.
To the barman: ‘Do you have Budweiser?’
‘Well, yes, but—‘
‘Bud it is!’ says Grace, before grabbing my hand and dragging me back to the table.
‘Fucking hell, why have you brought me here?’ she asks in a fuming stage whisper. ‘Coffee-cherry beer, are you serious?’
I laugh. ‘Last time I was here it was lychee cider. Count yourself lucky.’
She doesn’t laugh. Instead she finally picks up the menu and shuts her trap. I watch her face change as she reads through the options. Her eyelids droop and she bites her bottom lip. I definitely wasn’t expecting this on the first date. She’s playing with her hair and I’m fanning myself with my menu. Finally she drops hers.
‘I’d like the Ericeira Chicken,’ she announces. I breathe a quiet sigh of relief, thankful that she didn’t go for the steak, which, at £17.95, is a fiver more than anything else.
‘Yeah, looks great,’ I agree.
‘It looks okay. I just love sweet potato fries,’ she says, daring me to point out how ridiculous it is that she’s ordering £11.50 worth of fucking tubers. I keep my mouth shut and continue to peruse the menu. The barman comes over with our drinks. I take a hearty slurp and so does Grace.
‘When you’re ready just come and order at the bar,’ says the barman, who is now wearing a smile so glassy it’s almost double-glazed.
‘Okay, thank you,’ I say.
‘We have to order at the bar?’ snarls Grace. ‘Do they not have waiters? I already stood up once!’
‘I’ll go up in a minute, just give me two seconds to work out what I want.’
‘Hurry up, I could eat a horse.’
Now’s my chance!
‘Hey,’ I say, and she looks up at me. ‘This isn’t the Tesco frozen meat section!’
Her expression doesn’t change. ‘Oooh, contemporary,’ she says, before rolling her eyes as slowly as she can. She grabs the handset of the bright red vintage rotary telephone that’s mounted on the wall beside her and holds it to her ear. After a couple of seconds she proffers it to me.
‘2014 called, it wants its joke back.’
‘Okay, I know what I’m having.’ I leap out of my chair and head back to the bar. Our new friend is waiting for me.
‘Decided?’ he asks icily.
‘I think so,’ I reply. ‘She’ll have the Ericeira Chicken, and the Alabama Hotpot for me, please.’ I lean on the bar and survey the tables before me. I begin to notice that if one were to hold up a hipster-cancelling filter there would still be a few normals left in here. I spy a family out to lunch. He’s wearing one of those stupid, huge, ball-bag beanies but apart from that they’re positively bourgeois. The kids are scoffing their special children’s menu dishes, the littlest decimating a salmon and dill linguini and the older ramming gourmet fish fingers into his chomping mouth, fistfuls at a time. At a large, round table next to ours is a group of late twenties women, clearly workmates. They’re sharing plates of nachos and fajitas between them and laughing like drains.
I pan across to our table and see Grace watching the women with a look of absolute disgust on her face. She catches me looking and holds up her now empty glass, clinking it with a ringed finger. I nod and turn back to the barman.
‘And two more of the same, please. Isn’t she amazing?’ I ask him wistfully. He looks at her over my shoulder and I see in the mirror that she’s now trying to pull a fake book out of a wall made up to look like a bookshelf. She gives a thick leather spine a particularly hard yank and it peels straight off the wall. Grace swears under her breath and quickly chucks it under the table.
‘Are we looking at the same girl, here?’ the barman asks.
‘Yes, we are,’ I say proudly.
‘Whatever you say, dude. What table number are you?’
I panic and look back to our table. Grace holds up the bit of driftwood.
‘Ah, nine,’ I say.
‘Okay,’ says the barman, ‘food’s going to be about fifteen minutes.’
I grab our fresh drinks and get back to my seat.
The food actually takes around ten minutes, which surprises us.
‘They must’ve microwaved everything,’ says Grace as the timid waitress places her chicken reverently before her. It’s tucked into a toasted pitta which has also been stuffed with garden salad and several generous dollops of coleslaw. Next to it is a mountain of long, thin sweet potato fries, looking like dismembered crabs’ legs.
‘Nope, it’s all freshly prepared to order,’ says the waitress, handing me a small wooden chopping board. On one side of it is a miniature tureen filled with the hotpot, and next to that is a small metal pail (handle and all) filled with crispy-looking potato wedges.
‘Oh, well, la-di-dah!’ laughs Grace. The waitress fetches us some cutlery before retreating back to the kitchen.
A woman with her back to us at the next table gives a particularly loud cackle and Grace glares at her so hard one would think she was trying to force-choke the poor woman.
‘Just try the food,’ I say to her diplomatically.
‘What was that, sorry?!’ Grace shouts, glancing across at the woman again. ‘I can’t quite hear you!’
I redden and take this opportunity to examine my meal in greater detail. In the tureen is the hotpot, which consists of chunks of pork belly suspended in a thick, gloopy sauce. There are several strands of chives balanced artfully on top. The wedges are quite thin and well done, looking browned to absolute perfection.
Across from me Grace has begun hacking into her pitta, so I stab a wedge and insert. I was right. It’s crunchy until I hit the centre, which is wonderfully fluffy and moist. I quickly shovel in two more as Grace sits back in her chair, mouth full, and moans like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.
‘Holy shiiiiiiiit,’ she groans. I grab my napkin and wipe my suddenly-sweaty brow, then swallow.
‘Good?’ I ask.
‘Soooo good,’ she grins, giving me a perfect view of the half-masticated mouthful between her teeth. ‘Here,’ she says, offering me a loaded forkful, ‘try.’
I take the fork and pluck the coleslaw-smothered lump of chicken off it with my lips. I chew for a moment before settling back in my chair and moaning too. The chicken is perfectly cooked, still juicy and tender, and it has a slightly Mediterranean lime kick. The coleslaw is creamy and compliments the zest of the chicken perfectly.
‘Fuuuuuuck, that’s delicious,’ I say loudly.
‘Right?’ she says, and gives me a wonderful smile.
I scoop up my first bite of the hotpot and then offer the tureen to Grace. She does the same and we put them in our mouths simultaneously. I watch her face change again. Her eyes roll into the back of her head and her eyelids flutter beautifully. Her jaw stops moving and I wonder if there’s something wrong. But then the pork begins dissolving in my mouth and I understand. There’s no need to chew this; the meat has been wonderfully cooked to such a sloppy, fall-off-the-fork consistency that chewing has become unnecessary. Suddenly I understand why this dish came with a soup spoon on the side.
I grab it and ladle another load into my mouth, being sure to get plenty of the sauce. It’s barbeque-y with the slight sweetness of honey, but in no way does it drown out the full, hearty flavour of the pork.
‘Fuck me,’ I say breathlessly.
‘You’ll be lucky,’ says Grace, before winking at me like a pantomime dame. I can’t help but chuckle at that one, and she does too. The cackly woman turns around and gives us a Paddington stare, which only brings on another round of helpless laughter.
‘It’s good though, right?’ I ask, once our giggles have subsided.
‘Seriously good,’ she replies. ‘I may have misjudged this place. All my indie prick friends always rave about it, but I would never have chosen to come here in a million years.’
I’m slightly downhearted. I thought I was the only indie prick in her life. I take another huge spoonful of hotpot to nurse my hurt feelings before picking up a wedge with my fingers and dipping it in the sauce.
‘Hey,’ says Grace suddenly, her fork pausing halfway to her mouth. She cocks her head. ‘I like this song.’
I strain to listen past the noisy women and eventually catch a few bars of the background music. I vaguely recognise it so go for an educated guess.
‘Norah Jones?’ I ask.
‘Yeah,’ says Grace, ‘that Peter Pan song.’
‘Hah! And you call me an indie prick!’ I laugh.
‘Norah Jones is so fucking hipster!’ I explain.
‘Fuck off, no she isn’t,’ says Grace, suddenly angry and slightly embarrassed. I grin and raise my eyebrows. She gives me the finger and gets back to stuffing her face.
I keep an ear out for the rest of the Belle Isle playlist. Arctic Monkeys, Passenger, Vampire Weekend, Mumford & Sons, Kodaline. Oh, God, even Adele. It’s odd, I feel like they’ve misjudged their own vibe. I’m amazed all the youths in here can stand such mainstream, ‘fake’ indie music. Perhaps they don’t recognise any of it because it’s not on vinyl. Or maybe their long, matted sideburn hair is impeding their hearing.
Within ten minutes we’ve finished, both our dishes licked completely clean. We sit in contented silence for a bit, savouring the meal we’ve just annihilated. Our waitress comes over and takes our plates.
‘Would you like to have a look at the dessert menu?’ she asks.
‘Oh God,’ says Grace, stroking her full belly as I smirk at her.
‘Yes,’ I say sweetly to the waitress. Grace gives me her most withering look.
‘Twat,’ she says loudly.
‘What?’ I ask. ‘I’m just as full as you, but I’m trying to review this place, I can’t just ignore the puddings!’
‘That’s definitely bollocks,’ she counters, ‘you ignored the starters.’
‘Oh shit, yeah, starters. Whoops,’ I say guiltily. ‘Well that means we definitely need to try a pudding.’
The waitress returns with two menus and I have a look at the dessert section.
‘Oh, man, that warm brownie sounds good!’ I say enthusiastically. Grace grudgingly picks up her menu and glares a burning hole through it.
‘’Spose,’ she says.
‘But there’s no way I could eat a whole one…’ I begin.
‘Oh, no,’ says Grace, without looking up.
‘And just now you said you weren’t hungry…’
‘Nope. I know what you’re going to say, and the answer’s nope,’ she says.
Our waitress returns.
‘Have you decided?’ she asks.
‘Yes, I think we have,’ I reply brightly. ‘Could we have just one of the brownies—?’
‘To share?’ asks the waitress knowingly. Grace drops her forehead onto the table with a thump.
‘That’s what we were thinking,’ I say brightly.
‘I’ll bring you two spoons,’ says the waitress.
‘Godddd,’ comes Grace’s muffled voice as the waitress returns to the kitchen. ‘You’re such a prick.’
The pudding arrives even faster than the mains did: A thick, dark brownie with a dense crust, served with two scoops of creamy vanilla ice cream.
‘Cor,’ says Grace as she takes the long-handled spoon held out by the waitress.
‘I knew you’d change your mind,’ I say victoriously.
‘I haven’t yet, not entirely,’ she says. And with that she takes a gigantic, gooey spoonful of brownie and stuffs it into her mouth.
‘’Okin’ ‘ull, ‘at’s ‘ummy!’ she announces, rolling the gluey lump around her gob. I try a more conservative portion, making sure I get a sliver of ice cream too.
She’s right, it’s bloody yummy. Rich and dense, the crunchy crust contrasting supremely with the sticky centre. The ice cream is simple and predictable, but compliments the mouthful well.
We’re silent and the rest of the pudding is polished off within three minutes. Our spoons clatter together on the empty plate. Grace takes a breath and looks around.
‘I’ve changed my mind,’ she says grudgingly, ‘this is a pretty good place. The only problem is all the hipster bastards.’
‘I have a solution,’ I say, a sudden spurt of bravery surfacing in my heart, ‘let’s get out of here.’
She looks at me appraisingly for a few seconds, before coming to some sort of internal decision.
She marches me towards the door and the hipsters watch us leave through their chunky, non-prescription glasses, jealousy in their eyes and beer in their beards.
This isn’t over yet.