Thank God I’m not 16 any more. Not because of Miley Cyrus tainting our youth, or Britain’s boozing culture, or Instagram pressuring kids to be skinny. Thank God I’m not 16 any more because where would I hang out now Solly’s is closing down?
For decades, Solly’s held Jews together. You met an old Jewish man in a pub in Croatia and had nothing to say? Suddenly he’d ask if you’d ever been to Solly’s and his eyes would light up as he remembered that dreamy shawarma he once ate on his only trip to London, his fingers dripping with oil.
Your foreign cousins came to visit and you had nothing to talk about? You took them to Solly’s. It was impossible to have a quiet conversation in that aggressive, authentic Israeli restaurant, with waiters insulting you, the chilli burning you and the heat from the kitchen warming your back as you ate.
And for all the kids – and there are many, though they may deny it now they are older, wiser, cooler – before the days we were old enough to actually get into a bar, pub or club (and even after), Solly’s was the hub of our Saturday night activities.
We’d call each other and discuss plans, throwing wild and untried options into the air: “The cinema? Ice skating? Paint balling in the dark?…” until the inevitable lull in the conversation came, and we conceded: “Why are we trying to be different? We all know we’re going to end up at Solly’s.”
And end up at Solly’s we did, as it outlived My-Ami Burger, Dizengoff, Bloom’s and plenty of other Golders Green Road eateries. We were loyal to Solly’s, but it deserved our loyalty, always serving the softest pittas, the juiciest salads, the fattest chips.
One thing was for sure, though: you only went to Solly’s with people you knew. You couldn’t have a guy taking you there on a first date and watching you destroy your laffa, getting oil all over your fingers and smearing matbucha all over your teeth.
These hard lessons were learned in our teenage years, as we shyly hid behind the yellow menus and tried not to stare at the handsome, sulky Israeli men slicing the lamb shwarmas.
We loved Solly’s so much, for so long, that we did not overlook its faults, but grew to embrace them. We knew, smiling to ourselves, to go to the ATM by Tesco before making our visit, as the Solly’s card machine had been “broken” since its inception.
We knew to ask for tap water since the minuscule bottle of Evian on offer cost £2 and wasn’t enough to dilute the spice in our chicken shishlik.
We knew there wouldn’t be anywhere to sit if we chose the takeaway option, and we’d have to awkwardly perch on stools by the door, as if in a shop window.
And we knew that if we took too many tissues to wipe the tahini off our hands, a waitress would loudly tell us off. But we loved it more still because of these flaws.
Once, I visited for lunch with a friend who was on a diet. He asked if he could have his shwarma on a plate, instead of in a pitta.
The waiters looked bemused and said this was impossible. My friend asked, simply, that instead of putting the pieces of shwarma into a plate made of bread (a pitta), could they possibly put the shwarma directly onto the plate?
Shaking their heads, they called him a troublemaker, deemed the act impossible and served his shwarma inside a pitta. But instead of cursing the place and never returning, we just laughed and returned the very same day for dinner.
Who could forget the glory days before the terrible fire, when the top floor was open, oriental music played and there was such opulent space to luxuriate in how full we were?
Who could forget the many barmitzvahs spent there, the time examining the photos on the walls, the times as kids you’d nonchalantly wander right into the kitchen and watch chefs make those huge laffas?
Childhood simply won’t be the same for the kids of the kids who went to Solly’s. It was an institution: for adults, for children and for hundreds of 16-year-olds who for years couldn’t think of anything they’d rather do on a Saturday night than stuff themselves with hummus.
The restaurant may close, but its memory will live on inside every shwarma-lover’s heart.