The painting ‘The Beach of Abassotas’ by Jose María Uselle in 1960. , Bilbao Fine Arts Museum
José María Ucelay decorates the walls of Cervantes in 1938, a London restaurant opened by a former chef of the Sota family
Donostia, Sagradi, Ametsa, Lurra, Ardoa, Tuxotx… These are the names of restaurants that, despite their phonetic appearance, are not in the Basque Country but in London. Basque cuisine is more fashionable out there than ever and there are even a number of ‘Basque restaurants’ led by British chefs, professionals who fell in love with our tastes here or who want to get to know them straight in England Thanks for the succulent outreach work done by Eneko Atxa. (Aneko Basque Kitchen & Bar) or Neves Barragán from Santuratzi (Barafina, Sabor).
If Londoners love squid, ventresca or tuxistora now, it’s because of Barragan. She arrived in the capital of the Thames in 1998, and nine years later she became head chef of the Barafina restaurant, a true culinary phenomenon that opened two other delegations to London and with which Nieves won a Michelin star in 2014. Since 2018, the Lady of Our Country has held the same distinction at Sabor, a restaurant she opened with her partner Jose Itura in the Mayfair neighborhood.
Photograph of Old Compton Street from 1955, with the site where Leoncio Iribar’s restaurant was.
You’ll be happy to know that their kitchen at 18 Old Compton Street is still close to London’s first Basque restaurant. Sabor is just a 10-minute walk from there, but even closer (280 m) was the first Barafina (54 Frith Street), which Nieves had without a doubt succeeded 70 years before that, in the middle of a Soho diner. And Biscian had won.
His name was Leoncio Iribar Irusquieta and he was from Ibarrangelu, municipality, where he was born on September 11, 1895. I know very little about his life within our borders, because what was really relevant about it happened in foggy Albion. He started out as a cook in the service of the de la Sota family, the wealthy shipping owner Sir Ramon, and he certainly came to London, thanks to his close trade and cultural ties that his employers had with Great Britain. were together.
Alejandro, Ramon and Manuel de la Sota Eberto, Sir Ramon’s three sons, attended English universities, and Leoncio must have traveled well with them and then decided to try his luck in that country. Be that as it may, in 1920 he married another Spaniard, Rosa Vidal, in Kensington, had four children with him and lived in the United Kingdom until the end of his days.
There was a very famous restaurant in London at the time, Maison Basque (11 Dover Street), which claimed to offer a mix of French, Spanish and Basque haute cuisine, and had King Alfonso XIII’s former chef as kitchen manager. Indeed, Paul Hahn worked at the Royal Palace in Madrid, but despite its name, Basque had little to do with Maison Basque’s gastronomic offer. The first purely Spanish restaurant in London, Martinez, opened in 1923, and several more were opened in Soho over the next decade, then nicknamed the ‘Latin Quarter’ due to the large number of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese immigrants they visited. there lived.
Alluding to the Iribar restaurant in the press clipping, with mentions of de la Sota and Uselle.
In 1933 we find Leoncio Iribar as head chef at Martinez, from where he left two years later to establish his own business. The growing reputation of Basque gastronomy in Spain had not yet crossed the English Channel, so Iribar thought it would attract more customers by naming his restaurant Cervantes Spanish Restaurant. Lawrence Durrell, Robert Graves, Evelyn Waugh and Largo Caballero eat at 18 Old Compton Street. Unlike the monarchist Martinez (a favorite of Alfonso XIII during his London exodus), Cervantes became famous for welcoming intellectuals, artists and political refugees.
If we connect it with the old friendship that united them, it is logical that in the spring of 1938 the Iribar restaurant was visited by Manuel de la Sota (1897-1979). Developed by de la Sota, a representative of the Basque government in exile. Then an intense promotional work at the head of the Eresinka ballet and choir, in which Barmeo painter José María Uselle (1903–1979) also collaborated as set designer and costume designer. Eresinka exhibited in London in April 1938, at which time Cervantes was renamed Iribar Basque Restaurant and its owner hired Uselle to decorate its walls.
Unfortunately another war came to spoil everything. In May 1941 a German bomb destroyed the restaurant and with it Ucelay’s paintings focused on Basque landscapes and sports. Leoncio Iribar was once again a paid cook. He died in Putney in 1956, without thinking that five decades later another Biscian would do justice to his legacy.