You've been invited to dine at a prison, cooked for and served by actual inmates -- What goes through your mind?
My girlfriend and I recently booked in for lunch with some friends at The Clink, the restaurant at HMP Styal, and we spent the evening before our reservation discussing our… well, reservations. Back-and-forth, we wondered and speculated: Would we have to cross a phalanx of stern-faced guards who would demand the surrender of our bags and phones, barking out a litany of rules and security procedures?
Would we find ourselves in some drab, institutional cafeteria? Most of all, we wondered about the inmates we’d encounter. Would they seem to us like prisoners, dejected & sullen or otherwise sort of grim? Or would the service be obsequiously friendly, with over-the-top smiles and lilting voices put on to keep the overseers’ hands off their whip handles?
On the Sunday of our lunch, I could tell that my friends shared our trepidation. Meeting in the car park, our voices took on an involuntary hush as we considered the handsome converted chapel to which we’d followed with our maps. None of us wanted to be the first to test the heavy doors and see whether the place was open yet, none of us wanted to be the first to be told off or turned away. If not for my always-fearless girlfriend, who boldly ushered us inside, the lot of us might still be standing beside our cars, desperately hungry but paralyzed with social anxiety.
Of course, our nerves were jangling for no good reason and our fears were put to bed instantly as our visit began. The Clink is indeed an inmate-operated restaurant on the grounds of an honest-to-goodness prison, but mental impressions spun from memories of The Shawshank Redemption and Orange is the New Black quickly evaporate and give way to a reality that’s less cinematic but perfectly approachable, comfortable and sincere.
When The Clink opened a little less than 3 years ago, HMP Styal’s former chapel provided a sunny spaciousness to the restaurant conversion. The interior is tasteful and tidy, with modern light fixtures above carefully-preserved archways and decoratively re-purposed organ pipes gleaming in the sunlight that streams through towering windows of geometric stained glass.
My first glimpse of the glowing parquet floors and the polished oaken run of the bar was enough to replace worries of eating off aluminium trays with worries of not being dressed nicely enough, but the hostess graciously overlooked my Converse and sat us down for a meal that matched the surroundings for quiet, cultivated sophistication.
The restaurant operates as a registered charity and has been conceived as a training ground for inmates hoping to develop professionally in the lead-up to their release, and offers job-placement assistance to those who want it. Apart from a couple of civilian managers in the kitchen and the front-of-house, all staff are volunteers from Styal’s population who are hoping to demonstrate initiative and fresh new skills to potential employers and ease the transition into life outside the prison.
We were served lunch by Julie, who had never worked as a server before joining the program at The Clink, and we coincidentally found her working her final shift a few days before release. Julie described herself as a bit nervous about the coming months but says that the promise of a waiting job and the experiences she’s had developing her customer-service chops have her feeling much more confident and capable.
Lunch itself was of the familiar Sunday Roast variety, served as three courses with beef, lamb and chicken entrees on offer. The training in the kitchen is clearly focused on traditional preparations and presentations, and everything that hit our table demonstrated a careful approach to the classics.
I started with the Smoked Haddock Scotch Egg, which is probably one of the more imaginative dishes on the menu. Lighter and brighter than a pub-style Scotch Egg, substituting flaky fish and crunchy celery root for sausage but preserving the mandatory charms of crispy breaded shell and unctuous runny egg, it’s a terrific summertime interpretation and a near-perfect appetizer. Around the table there was also much appreciation expressed for the cool, richly fatty Rabbit & Duck Terrine.
The cuts of meat that arrived were, irrespective of creature, skilfully carved and laid alongside masterfully-roasted carrots and potatoes. The entree plates were simply constructed and engineered to satisfy with classic flavours that marry splendidly with a little help from sheer, shiny gravies. Each arrived topped with a generous Yorkshire pudding that was even better than my mum’s home-made ones — leading to a bizarre moment’s wondering how I could get my dear mother locked away for a few months.
The Clink’s inviting dessert menu is another list of traditional favourites, from which my cohort managed to order one of just about everything. The tender and aromatic Vanilla Poached Pear earns high marks, complimented perfectly by a dainty scoop of tart sorbet. The Local Cheese Board is generously laden with the expected varieties including an edgy, well-developed cheddar.
But if yours is a sweet tooth you’ll want to ask for the Collection of Chocolate with Damson Ripple Ice Cream — alongside the creamy, perfectly-balanced Damson Ripple come an assortment of dark and milk chocolate ingots and an airy little mound of white chocolate mousse that is simply spectacular, a true show-stopping close to a meal marked by immaculate bites that I wished could keep coming long after my belly was full.
If the best restaurants make you feel comfortably at home, then The Clink succeeds doubly for overcoming it’s setting and it’s gimmick to put my friends and I so quickly at ease. For want of anything dreary or dismal on display, our mealtime conversation quickly turned away from talk of prisons and inmates and back to the basic banter of everyday while a delightful meal unfolded effortlessly around us.
Leading with an emphasis on the fundamentals of fine dining and an unexpectedly nonchalant atmosphere, a visit to The Clink is apt to satisfy more than just your lurid curiosity about the setting.
The Clink, HMP Styal, Wilmslow SK9 4HR