From the moment we booked our team Christmas lunch, it was obvious this was going to be an unusual restaurant experience. What other eatery would ask for the date of birth of every diner and their full name as shown on the photo ID that they then have to bring on the day?
We were warned that if anyone forgot their ID they would be turned away and have to forgo the festivities – it really is a case of ‘if your name’s not on the list you’re not coming in’. An email with guidelines and procedures set out the other rules: payment for any drinks can only be made by cheque; a handbag or a briefcase is allowed in, but no other bags or cases; no chewing gum, aerosols, laptops or cameras; and a maximum £50 cash is permitted. Although you can bring in a mobile phone it has to be kept in a locker in reception.
The Clink Restaurant opened at HMP High Down, Surrey, in May 2009 and was the first public restaurant to open within a prison. On arrival we checked in at the visitors’ centre where we handed over our ID in exchange for a pass, put our mobile phones in lockers and were then escorted to the restaurant. Security, understandably, is tight and getting in and out of the restaurant takes quite a bit of time as it involves going through a series of gates and locked doors. On the way there are reminders of where you are – staff walk past with keys jangling and a notice lets staff know who the duty governor and duty doctor are that day.
But although wire coils run along the restaurant’s roof, once inside you soon forget you are in a prison. The décor is contemporary with exposed brick walls, lights that change colour, music in the toilet, a bar and open kitchen. Only the plastic cutlery and the absence of alcohol are clues to your location, but it’s the first time that I’ve been out with my colleagues for a meal and they’ve all stayed sober!
Five star quality
Our menu choice included starters of salmon gravlax or goat’s cheese and red onion tartlet with pesto dressing and micro herbs; mains of turkey and all the trimmings or wild mushroom pudding, savoury granola and blue cheese sauce; and desserts of traditional Christmas pudding with a vanilla crème Anglaise or lemon cheesecake with spiced berry compote.
The aim of The Clink is to train prisoners in a similar environment to a four or five star hotel or commercial restaurant. Food is prepared, cooked and served by prisoners training for jobs in the hospitality industry. Most of the food is fresh organic produce and the taste and presentation could easily grace a top hotel or restaurant. The same is true of the service: waiters wear waistcoats and aprons and are friendly, attentive and professional.
The unanimous feeling was that the meal far surpassed any work Christmas lunch we have been to in the past and we will definitely be returning in 2015. Our content director summed it up perfectly as we left, “I think this is the best place to eat in Sutton.”
Read our interview with The Clink chief executive Chris Moore and a prisoner supported by the charity to turn his life around.