Known as The Big ‘Un to northern restaurateurs and members of the Restaurant Association - where he has been chairman and president - David Baldwin has run Baldwins Omega restaurant with his wife Pauline since 1980. To mark the anniversary, he's published a book commemorating those three decades. Tom Vaughan dips into the pages and talks to the Big ‘Un himself.
Authors pen their works for myriad reasons. For Joseph Heller, it was to show the insanity of war in Catch-22. For Mary Shelley, Frankenstein was conceived to beat her friends in a short-story competition. For David Baldwin? "The restaurant down the road - an Italian guy - did a book 18 months ago and I thought ‘That's very nice', so did one myself," he answers in a thick Sheffield accent. "I suppose it's a bit of self-aggrandisement, you know."
However much he talks it down, what the owner of Sheffield's Baldwins Omega restaurant does have - a prerequisite for writing a book - is a story to tell, one that other restaurateurs may well be interested in reading. Thirty years at the top is no mean feat, as Baldwins Omega: The First 30 Years recounts.
Omega started life as a 1960s new-build restaurant constructed on the site of a listed hall - knocked down without planning permission in the heady post-war days, as architects rushed to makeover the crumbling Victoriana of old Britain. Omega's genesis alone makes compelling reading. It was designed in 1962 by Sheffield Refreshment Houses to be the most modern dining experience outside of London.
"The new restaurant opened in a blaze of glory. There was a genuine buzz of excitement throughout the city about its new modern British theme. The building had been constructed in the most up-to-date style and the interior was much talked about. The main dining room, now our ballroom, boasted 140 covers surrounding one of the few sprung dance floors in Sheffield, which in turn was illuminated by a hanging ceiling of light, the first of its kind anywhere in the country. The name of the restaurant reflected its cutting-edge concept. Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, signified the last word in fine-dining."Extract from Baldwins Omega: The First 30 Years, page 18
An opening dinner included roast duck and apricot sauce and Indian curries, "the likes of which Sheffield has never seen before," said newspaper coverage. Into this supposed cutting edge site, entered the young Baldwin, who began an 18-month stint at Omega as a grill chef.
"From those days as a grill chef, I had pledged to myself that someday I would own Omega. Perhaps it was the arrogance of youth, but somehow despite its early successes, I thought I'd do a better job of it than they could, and I knew that the only way to make real money in our business was to become the gaffer. Sheffield Refreshment Houses had run the Omega as a high-class restaurant and did the occasional wedding. I thought then that it had a different and better future ahead of it as a banqueting venue."Extract from page 28
The original dream that was Omega eventually died in 1978, never having quite established itself as the pre-eminent force outside of London. When the Baldwins eventually came to buy the site two years later - after 17 years running various pubs and restaurants in the industry - it wasn't the prettiest time to be launching.
Baldwin recalls: "We bought it just after Mrs Thatcher had shafted the miners and just as she was about the shaft the steel workers. We went from having 28,000 people in the Sheffield steel industry to 2,000. Up here the depression then was just as bad as it is now." But they flung themselves into it, nonetheless.
"We had invested every penny we had into Omega so there was no time for gloom. We had to make it a goer, and quickly… Families would arrive at the Omega at 1pm and partake of a great Sunday lunch buffet, accompanied by live music and clowns to entertain the kids. We cast aside the old saying that there's no such thing as a free lunch. We didn't make a great deal of profit from them as we gave a lot of the lunches away. But it was all in the name of our marketing drive."Extract from page 44
Thirty years on, it is still themed nights that Baldwins Omega is best known for. From its salmon and strawberry nights - which did over 2,000 covers through this summer - to its disco nights, the meal and entertainment format has proved enduringly popular.
As a concept deemed unfashionable by some, is it something that is sustainable with the changing generations? "I don't see why not," says Baldwin. "You know, we get a lot of younger ones coming in for the disco nights."
The food, too, has changed over the years, since he first arrived in 1962 as a grill chef. "It's a lot different without being too different, if you know what I mean," he says. "We've managed to keep the tradition but improve the quality. These days women are our biggest source of trade whereas once it was businessmen. So the food is lighter, to reflect that."
True to his promise, another aspect that the restaurant has become renowned for is its banqueting. Three nights a week - four before the current recession kicked in - are given over to functions at the site, with a distinct modus operandi designed to cater to large numbers.
"Pauline's famous conveyor belt system was developed when we were at the Angler's Rest in Bamford in the 1970s. We had a banquet for approximately 70 people and several members of staff hadn't turned up… Pauline decided to abandon old-fashioned etiquette in favour of serving our food hot and fresh to each table. Starting with the top table one of the waitresses put the plate down. She was immediately followed by Pauline serving the meat, then another waitress with the veg and another with the gravy."Extract from page 69
Banqueting might be considered less glamorous than the fine-dining side of catering, but Baldwin prefers profits to presentation. "Those chefs might not like it but they won't make as much money," he says.
"The satisfaction you get of serving a room of 280 people and each of them feeling the meal was cooked especially for them - that's what's amazing about banqueting."
And you can't argue with the figures. Today the restaurant does an average of 1,200 covers a week, turning over £2m a year - a figure just 15% down since the recession started. "Sheffield has been in and out of recession since 1976," he says. "We're pretty much specialists at surviving it."
While Baldwins Omega has continued for 30 years, it's Baldwin's work with the Restaurant Association (RA) that has brought him to the attention of much of the industry. After joining in 1978, he served chairman from 2005 until 2008 and is now the incumbent president, a position he'll hold until the end of the year.
"I've taken a huge amount of inspiration and met a lot of good people," he explains. "Being a restaurateur can be a very lonely business but it creates a forum. At the RA you can meet up with fellow restaurateurs, talk to them, and realise they've the same problems as you." The person he looks up to most in the industry for such support? "Richard Shepherd http://www.baldwinsomega.com" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">owner of Langan's in London], without a doubt. I'd go so far as to say he's my hero. There have been few more successful than he."
Sheffield townsfolk might say the Baldwins are certainly up there with him? "I don't know about that," he answers. "We've certainly had a lot of fun. And if you've had a lot of fun, why not write about it."
Baldwins Omega: The First 30 Years, by David and Pauline Baldwin, with foreword by Brian Turner and photography by Polly A Baldwin, published by Regional Magazine Company, £12.95. ISBN: 978-0-9549254-8-2
OMEGA MENUS THROUGH THE YEARS
Oeufs et pâtes
Oeufs poches Florentine, 6 shillings, 6 pence (6/6)
Oeufs a la crème, 6/-
Omelettes selon choix, 9/6
Spaghetti Bolanaise, 7/6
Poissons Goujonade de sole diable, 10/6
Delice de sole Waleska, 14/6
Sole doubres maitre d'hotel, 13/6
Scampis frites, 14/-
Scampis meuniere, 14/-
Cooked at your table Steak omega, 21/-
Steak a la crème, 20/-
Steak Diane, 20/-
Chicken a la crème, 16/6
New Year's Eve 1981
Ogen melon surprise
Tay salmon en cocotte
Fillet of beef Napoleon, pommes Parisienne, petit pois, florets of cauliflower
Cheese board and celery
Petit fours and coffee
2010, à la carte
Lobster cocktail, £9.50
Duck and wild mushroom terrine, £7.50
Celeriac and truffle soup (v), £6
Chargrilled Barnsley chop, £14
Shin beef and oxtail pie, £13.50
Traditional roast poussin, £13.50
Pan-fried calves liver, £14.50
Pan-fried monkfish Malay, £14