Beloved Notting Hill Gate restaurant threatened

Picture from Google Street View, (c) Google

Da Maria, the little Neapolitan “trattoria” next door to the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill Gate, which has been run by the same family since 1980, is under threat. The owner of the property has applied for a merger of the cinema and the restaurant space, in order to make the cinema foyer larger.

Da Maria was started in 1980 by Pasquale and Maria Ruocco, and has been run by them and their children since then. For many years it has been the go-to place in London for lovers of Neapolitan food, but also for fans of the football club S.S.C. Napoli, as Da Maria shows all their matches live via satellite TV. Although very small and very inexpensive, the restaurant is renowned for its food and was included in the Observer Food Magazine’s 2016 OFM 50 list.

The freehold of the property, consisting of 87 Notting Hill Gate as well as 1, 3 and 3A Hillgate Street at the back, was bought by Imperial Resources Ltd on Isle of Man in 1985. That company is closely linked to Imperial Resources S.A. in Panama. Both companies were formed on the same day, 24 May 1982, and the Panamanian company is the lessee on the only two leases mentioned in the the Land Registry freehold title for the property (the 2nd floor of 87 Notting Hill Gate and the ground and 1st floor of 3 Hillgate Street). Both the cinema and Da Maria have non-registered short business leases.

The Gate Cinema began as the Electric Palace in 1911, and the “little-altered early cinema auditorium with exceptionally lavish Edwardian baroque plaster decoration” led to the building being Grade II listed in 2000, although the Notting Hill Gate front and foyer was redone in the 1950s after the original decorative facade and entrance was badly damaged by bombing during World War II. The fantastic auditorium featured in Martin Scorsese’s 2011 historical adventure film “Hugo”, and will apparently also be seen in “Paddington 2” (to be released 10 November).

In 2003 the cinema was bought by the arthouse chain Picturehouse Cinemas, but in 2012 that chain was in turn swallowed up by Europe’s second largest cinema chain, Cineworld, infamous for keeping most of its staff on zero hour contracts and lately for refusing to pay Picturehouse staff the living wage.

At the end of July, an agent acting on behalf of the registered freeholder on Isle of Man or the parent/sister company in Panama (the architect’s drawings only state “Imperial Resources” as client) submitted a planning application to the council’s planning department for enlarging the cinema foyer by removing the wall between the current foyer and Da Maria. The current period for the restaurant’s lease is ending in a few month’s time, and the Ruocco family has been notified that the rolling lease they’ve had for 37 years will not be renewed this time.

The threat to the restaurant, so beloved by many locals, quickly resulted in a Change.org petition to save Da Maria. Singer Lily Allen is said to be behind the petition, which right now has 2,280 signatures.

Last Sunday, the Observer’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner wrote about this tiny outpost of Naples”, which “is the pride and joy of Notting Hill. He writes, after first having described the food: “All of this is under threat and for what exactly? Six extra square metres or so on a cinema foyer. It wouldn’t just be the end of a lovely restaurant run by lovely people. It would be another blow to an idea: that even in a city like London, increasingly engineered for a population that thinks taps come gold-plated as standard, there is still a place for those on lower incomes.

According to both Jay Rayner’s article and the Evening Standard on Saturday, spokespersons for Picturehouse Cinemas say that the application was “as much a surprise to us as it was to our neighbours“, and that they ”value being neighbours to Da Maria trattoria.” This is not wholly surprising, as many news reports indicate that the Cineworld often do things without informing the Picturehouse managament, and the latest Picturehouse accounts show an exceedingly high turnover of board directors during 2016.

The council’s planning applications committee is expected to decide on the two applications (the listed building application LB/17/04763 and the planning application PP/17/04762 at the committee meeting on 10 October. The public consultation ended on 1 September, but it’s still possible to comment the two applications via their Comment tabs on the council’s planning application website.

This is a link to the Change.org petition: Save Notting Hill’s family Trattoria from demolition by Cineworld!