My love of music started young, way before my love of solid food. Between the ages of pre-walk and first day at school I spent most of my time hanging out with my dad at his record shop in Penzance. Bottle of warm, sweetened milk in one hand and the double duvet cover I claimed as my comfort blanket in the other, I’d spend my day taking in an aural diet of everything from reggae – the Eek-A-Mouse and Pablo Moses strain, rather than the Shaggy sort – as well as masters from the worlds of rock, blues, jazz – Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme tune was a particular favourite among the stacks of 7-inches.
This diet, the only one I’ve religiously followed come to think of it, continued back home with dad playing the guitar and the record deck on permanent spin. In fact, music was so prevalent while I was growing up, if I could sing, or perhaps persevered with the recorder, I’d have been in a band. Luckily my parents didn’t have the jaded encouragement gene which could have landed me, homemade costume and all, in front of the X-Factor judges, so it’s saved for the car and shower where the acoustics and background noise cover missed notes and incorrect lyrics. Yes, but what has this got to do with The Blues Kitchen, I hear you cry? Well, it was around that time I developed an obsession for Muddy Waters (and Don King too, but I’ll save that story for another occasion). So when I found out that the next best thing, his son Mud Morganfield, was playing at The Blues Kitchen in Camden (of all places!), I was there, along with the memories of my musical start.
For a Sunday night, the place was impressively packed. Full of people who did the 50s look so well I felt like I’d strayed into an episode of Happy Days. Sharp-suited men in their 20s to 40s rocking the Teddy Boy look, hair greased back into perfect pompadours, oozing an effortless coolness Fonzie would hang up his leather jacket over; accompanied by pretty girls with delicately coiffed curls and swing dresses. My first thoughts were, where on earth have these people been hiding all this time? I lived in Camden for two years and never came across anyone so polished. And secondly, why on earth didn’t I make more effort? Thankfully there were plenty of ‘normally’ dressed people too, so I didn’t feel like a complete sartorial failure.
The kids aren’t the only ones to have found a look that works. Decked out with leather booth chairs, like something ripped out of an old Chevy, a gentle glow omitted from a mix of old tyre and trumpet-style lights hanging from the ceiling, and pictures of old blues singers donning the walls, it’s American bar done good. One that wouldn’t look out of place tucked down a quiet alley in New Orleans, and like the whisky it sells, one that will get better with age. It’s an odd contrast looking out the windows at the discount and electrical stores on Camden High Street, until the blinds come down after dusk and the lights are dimmed further and you forget you’re there at all.
A nightly line-up presents a selection of resident and big-name ska, reggae, soul, blues and rock ‘n’ roll acts – Seasick Steve, Babyshambles and The Mystery Jets are among previous visitors; plus for those who are musically gifted, there’s the open-to-all-with-an-instrument regular Sunday night Blues Jam.
Another thing The Blues Kitchen does very well is bourbon, with 17 Kentucky blends, seven single barrel and 10 small batch varieties; plus a good list of Tennessee, rye, corn and wheat whiskeys. The American whiskey cocktail list makes good use of them, with the Old Fashioned presenting them at their best, the Woodford Reserve bourbon mixed into this smoky concoction would be wonderful at the end of the night, with some ice and a crackling log fire; though with the blues playing in the background and mixed with some sugar and Angostura Bitters here, it was pretty damn good. Too good to stop at just the one. The Sazerac and Bourbon Smash from the contemporary list were also fine mixes.
The Kitchen side serves up ‘soul food’, think BBQ chicken, gumbo, jambalaya, burgers, chilli and an interesting selection of salads, including smoked mackerel and apple, and swordfish niçoise. Portions are big, and tasty enough to obviate complaints, but nothing that’ll blow you away. We happily munched through the spinach, parmesan and artichoke dip and crispy tortilla toasts, a good replacement for drink-induced cravings for crisps and nuts, followed by main dishes of rib-eye steak and BBQ ribs, which were equally juicy, tender, cleanly presented and generous enough to warrant the £15-odd pricing.
Despite there being an obvious demand for our table, we weren’t rushed along at all, and spent the night being looked after by a brilliantly attentive waitress, taking in the rockabilly sounds of the bar’s regulars Jack Rabbit Slim and Dollar Bill, before the man himself took to the stage to end our evening there on a bourbon-fuelled bluesy high.
The Blues Kitchen, 111 – 113 Camden High Street, London NW1 7JN. Tel: 020 7387 5277. Website.