Independent restaurants in today’s world are increasingly fleeting. Chains rule the high streets, and when a new startup establishment opens to a fanfare and a flourish, it’s often gone within a couple of years. Crust in Lincoln is a remarkable antidote to this trend, having been a constant presence in the city for over 40 years. Enduring through generations, Crust continues to be run single-handedly by Victor Vella, the award-winning chef who opened it all those decades ago.
Crust is almost hidden in plain sight on Lincoln High Street. Although it has a premium location in the heart of town, its subtle entrance is easy to miss. The restaurant occupies the first floor above a clothes shop, accessible via a single door facing onto the street. It has no website, no Instagram presence, no Facebook page – Victor keeps everything simple, as it has always been.
We discovered Crust almost by accident. One Saturday afternoon shopping in Lincoln, I looked up and saw a sign in old-fashioned, coffee-coloured lettering swinging from outside the first-floor windows, reading: “Crust: fully licensed steak restaurant”. It looked almost out of place among the bright branded colours of the high street shops.
How have we never noticed this place before, I wondered? When I tried to look it up later online, I could barely find any more information, and the place didn’t even show up on Google maps. This only heightened my curiosity. We would have to try it out for ourselves, and our sixth wedding anniversary provided the perfect occasion.
Victor Vella: the patron chef behind Crust Lincoln
Victor answered the phone personally when I called to make the booking. At that point, I didn’t realise that he does everything at Crust restaurant entirely on his own. We made our reservation for 7:30pm on a Saturday; for a peak time like this, he tells me, you need to book three or four days in advance so he can be prepared.
Crust hasn’t always been a one-man show. Victor first opened it with his wife, Sylvia, in March 1982. Sylvia sadly passed away earlier this year at the age of 84, and after a two-month closure, Victor re-opened the doors again, managing everything from start to finish.
Crust was originally located on Broadgate, and Victor and Sylvia employed a team of more than a dozen people in the early days. It was one of the busiest restaurants in town.
At the time, Victor was reputed among the top chefs in the country. In the late 1970s he had represented the United Kingdom with the Chefs and Cooks Circle in Holland, and was a three-time finalist at Hotelympia’s Chef of the Year. He also worked as a national catering judge and amassed a pile of gold and silver cooking competition medals.
Crust would have stayed on Broadgate, Victor explained to us, but the building was bought out by Lincoln City Council so the library could be extended. So, in December 1991, the restaurant moved to its location on 252 High Street, where it still remains.
An enduring gem in a changing city
Lincoln has changed drastically over the years, especially since the opening of the university brought a new, younger population. For anyone who grew up here in the 1980s and 90s, the city centre is almost unrecognisable. Stepping inside Crust restaurant is like entering a historical cache of that previous era.
Behind the doorway a tall flight of stairs leads up to the restaurant. At first it feels like you are entering somebody’s home. But at the top, you emerge through some hanging curtains into an Aladdin’s cave of colour and memorabilia.
Tables are neatly set and pristinely arranged in rows, with rich red cloths, carefully folded napkins and placemats that still bear the old designs from the restaurant’s early Broadgate days. The curtains are dazzling in their patterns and colours, and cabinets and windowsills are adorned with vases, pottery and trinkets from many corners of the world.
The walls are a testament to the prestige Victor has earned over the decades, hung with newspaper clippings and award certificates, haphazardly interspersed with old paintings.
It’s like a Mediterranean restaurant meets an old curiosity shop. A line on the back of a menu gives some context: “the environment within the restaurant is based on giving you a Mediterranean feeling, which is passed on from Victor’s Maltese background”. Victor tells us that he was born in Malta during a time when his father was stationed there on military service.
You get the sense that this little restaurant room has stood still in time while the entire city around it has changed beyond recognition. And there is something beautifully compelling about that.
Silver service is the way at Crust Lincoln
As we stand marvelling at the interior, we can hear the sound of hurried activity in what must be the kitchen, and a voice calls through: “just a moment!”. Seconds later, Victor is with us – and the first thing that strikes us is his short stature. He is not a very tall man, but his presence fills the room.
Amazingly, despite it being peak time on a Saturday evening, only one other table in the restaurant is occupied. After having a quick pre-drink in a packed bar across the road, it’s astonishing to have this place almost entirely to ourselves. How does a city-centre restaurant with such a unique character fly so far under the radar?
Victor prides his business on delivering proper silver service. He waits on us attentively throughout our meal, pouring the wine, serving our vegetables onto our plates.
A line on the menu warns that we may experience long waiting times, because “all dishes are freshly prepared and cooked for your delight and enjoyment”. Reinforcing this, as he serves our starters, Victor explains that it’s taking a while because he manages everything himself.
The incredible thing is that it didn’t really take that long at all! And even if it had, we would be happy to spend time soaking up that atmosphere.
A menu of great variety
Deciding what to eat at Crust is a tough task. While steak is clearly a speciality, there is tremendous variety on the menu, with each page presenting a different cuisine, theme and offer.
The “French regional bistro dishes” page, for example, is an eclectic selection featuring the likes of coq au vin, sauté lamb cutlet a la Van Gogh, scampi meuniere, red mullet Maréchale and beef bourguignon. Chalkboards on the walls offer more options still, carefully handwritten, from classics like cottage pie to rarities like “manor house smokie”. (After trying to Google it later, I still don’t know what it is!)
Wines are listed just by the type, not by the maker or brand. We treat ourselves to an anniversary bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I order smoked salmon to start, and Lisa a prawn cocktail. For mains we both default to steak, Lisa ordering fillet and a T-bone for me.
With a menu so extensive and varied, you may be left wondering how Victor manages the flow of ingredients. One thing is for certain; he hasn’t lost any of his flair for cooking. We soon learn why there are so many award certificates displayed on the walls.
Victor’s food is simply presented, and tastes delicious. Smoked salmon with a wedge of lemon and a couple of slices of cucumber and tomato is all I need to be happy. The portions are generous, too.
And the steak – wow! It’s the best one I’ve had since we travelled in Buenos Aires five years earlier. Lisa’s fillet might be the biggest one I’ve ever seen, and my T-bone barely fit on the plate. Both were cooked exactly and faultlessly to our liking.
Lisa asks Victor where the steaks were sourced from, and he takes the opportunity to explain how he always supports local suppliers. “90% of my income is spent locally,” he says. It’s really reflected in the quality.
The passion lives on
Somehow, we still have room for dessert. Again, the choice is wide, and it’s a mixture of household favourites and exotic quirks. I settle on a fruit meringue nest on Victor’s recommendation as a light option, and Lisa orders some ice cream. To round off the evening, we order a coffee, which Victor serves freshly in a cafetière with some boiled sweets.
Outside, we hear a loud, steady beat blaring from the new Popworld nightclub across the road. It’s like the tentacles of the modern city reaching in through the window and infiltrating this precious old time capsule. This doesn’t ruin the experience at all, but next time we’ll visit at lunch so we can hear Victor’s choice of music more clearly!
The relatively low profile of Crust on Lincoln High Street is baffling, given the restaurant’s longevity and the unique experience it brings.
Victor hands us his business card as we leave, proudly displaying his esteemed F.I.H. suffix (Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality). He clearly has not lost any passion for what he does, and his love of silver service is the engine that keeps Crust running. With eight covers a day at most these days, it continues more as a passion project than as a profit-maker.
Interesting new restaurants open all the time in Lincoln, and we welcome the freshness and diversity. But places like Crust are simply irreplaceable.
Victor has no intention of retiring in the near future, and we hope that he will have many more years doing what he loves. But when Crust does eventually close its doors, something special will be lost from the city.
Crust Lincoln is open 11:30am – 3pm Monday to Saturday, and 7pm – 10pm Tuesday to Saturday. You can book a table by calling Victor on 01522 540322, allowing at least a few days in advance.