Estimated reading time:5 minutes, 18 seconds
Everyone has a story. Where to eat? Meet Elton Keka, the owner of 129hrd, a new Holloway Road neighbourhood restaurant. Interview by Nicola Baird.
“Customers from around here are very foody. They know what they want and their expectations are high because they eat in good restaurants,” says Elton Keka, surveying his new restaurant on Holloway Road. After a career managing famous venues, such as Fortnum & Mason, Gordon Ramsay, Café Royal on Regent Street and Searcy’s St Pancras champagne bar, Elton opened the doors of his first restaurant, 129hrd, back in June.
>To celebrate the 250th interview on ISLINGTON FACES readers (and all 250 interviewees) are invited for a drink (there are plenty of soft options) in the pub on Monday 2 October. Save the date and hopefully you’ll soon be sent an email with your invite. If you want to come along, and haven’t yet received an invite please email Nicola for event details!
At first Elton, and his partner Syri Koiku who also worked in the restaurant trade, weren’t sure about Holloway Road.
“I was thinking of Upper Street 15 years ago and thought that people might want to stop and eat in Holloway Road, they don’t need to go to Upper Street. I saw the potential. This area has a few nice places and I wanted to open a neighbourhood restaurant where we knew everyone. I know it works outside London – I’ve seen it in Surrey. There’s potential for it to work here, as we’re only small and Holloway Road is great value,” he says.
But before he signed the paperwork Elton, 39, says he thought hard. “I came to Holloway Road for four or five nights in a row. The first night I didn’t like the look of the Lamb from the outside! The next night I went inside and I loved it – the selections and the professional guests. Seeing the people there changed my mind.”
And so his 40-seater neighbourhood restaurant, just opposite the Lamb pub, was opened, serving modern European food. Working with him is head chef, Rob Homer, 31. Both Rob’s parents are chefs, his dad still runs a restaurant, and Rob has a track record working at Café Royal, Brown’s Hotel and more recently running a pub in South Kensington. It’s clear he is pleased to be working in Islington now as it’s shortened his tube commute from Walthamstow. As a bonus 129hrd is also close to his football team, Arsenal.
Places Elton Keka likes around Islington
- “I’m impressed by the Highbury Barn shops (particularly La Fromagerie, Godfrey’s Butchers and Five Boys). On my way up there I’ll often see two or three customers.”
- “I’ve eaten in every single place around Holloway Road to see what they do. The Barn, at 60 Holloway Road, opposite 129hrd is a great coffee shop.”
- “I love the Lamb pub’s selection of drinks, 54 Holloway Road. I did bartending until I got married (Elton has a five-year-old son) and then moved to restaurants.”
“We will always keep the menu seasonal and affordable – we’re very conscious of price,” says Elton, who was brought up in Albania, showing me this week’s menu for a two-course £10.95 lunch. It’s only 10am, and breakfast is barely digested, but Islington Faces really likes the look of the choices at 129hrd. It’s easy to imagine tucking into the seasonal soup (celeriac and apple) followed by Croque Madam or pasta with blue cheese and wild mushrooms. But I’ll need a meat-eating companion to try the pork rillette on sourdough. Or can I hold back my hunger and come for dinner instead to try the roasted wood pigeon or yellow fin tuna?
There’s also a tempting looking cocktail list including Elton’s invention, an aperitif, Great Kick, which is a mix of gin, beetroot juice, honey, ginger and lime juice. When Islington Faces asks why cocktails are such a trend nowadays it’s chef Rob who explains: “Not everyone likes the taste of alcohol or a pint. All the sophisticated ladies are drinking them, so it’s where to meet nice ladies.” However there’s also an impressive wine list including a delicious-sounding Chardonnay from Slovenia which Elton says was grown by a sommelier turned winemaker.
Right place, right time
So is the neighbourhood formula working? Elton thinks it is: “It’s a great feeling to work for yourself and I’m lucky to have Rob who is passionate about food. Our customers are great, as they come back, and often we have an office having lunch together here once a week. People who’ve eaten here are the most influential for getting us new customers. It’s incredible to see the Instagram and Facebook recommendations, and the reviews on Trip Advisor and Google have been almost all 5*.”
Turns out it’s not just the food that people at 129hrd like, it’s also the Holloway Road location. “People tell me they like coming to 129hrd because they don’t need a bus or cab. They walk here, have a great meal and a few drinks and then a great walk home through the park,” says Elton. For an interview written on World Car Free Day that’s a perfect conclusion. See you there soon.
- 129hrd, 129 Holloway Road, N7 8LT is open seven days a week from 12 noon until 11pm for all day dining. On Sundays they serve brunch and roasts. https://www.129hrd.co.uk
- twitter @129_hrd
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thanks to Tim for this suggestion.