Shirlee Posner welcomes back the V Café to The Guildford Institute with its refurbished kitchen, new counter and management team: Guildford’s only totally vegetarian restaurant.
On moving to Guildford in 2005, it wasn’t long before I encountered the Beano vegetarian café at The Guildford Institute, just off North Street. This eaterie had a loyal following which loved home-cooked, comforting, vegetarian food. Started in 1982, the Beano was just open on Fridays, but soon extended to full weekdays. Different cooks prepared food at home as the café kitchen was too small in which to cook. Eventually, of the five original cooks, one remained – Leonie. She carried on cooking together with daughter Emma until she recently decided to retire. A temporary caterer was put in charge and on 14 May the café was relaunched with an extended kitchen and new team. Renamed the V Café, it has pleasingly stuck to its vegetarian principles.
New managers Nicholas Humble and Ian Loffel met at school and became good friends and chefs. After training together at Ealing College, they both had careers amassing 35 years of hardcore catering experience. Many have a romantic idea of what running a café is like: the reality is it’s hard work and many skills are required to be successful. Nick and Ian knew what they had let themselves in for and have short opening hours, virtually unheard of in this trade. The combination of Ian’s mostly kitchen experience with Nick’s management skills honed at Compass Catering means the team has an understanding of different markets from high-end eateries to staff canteens.
The Institute wanted to carry on serving vegetarian food and Nick and Ian have made sure the food is in keeping with what went before.
You may wonder why the café is vegetarian. Before the historic Grade II listed building became The Guildford Institute, it was the Royal Arms Temperance Hotel. The Temperance movement is all about voluntary self-restraint and focused mainly on abstinence from consuming alcohol. When the hotel closed, the Mechanics Institute was formed in 1834 as a place of education for the local community for whom courses were available for a small fee. In 1892, Guildford Working Men’s Institute merged with the Mechanics Institute and The Guildford Institute was born. It has been offering short courses on art, culture, history and even blogging ever since.
When two former employees at The Institute came up with the idea of the café in 1982, vegetarianism was on the rise in the UK. Although the Vegetarian Society was formed back in 1847, World Vegetarian Day did not come about until the late seventies and the cookery school launched shortly after in 1982.
I was keen to see what the food would be like and it didn’t disappoint. The café runs a tight schedule starting with coffee and pastries served from 9am until noon. The coffee is fresh brew (not barista) and a dark roast Guatemalan blend from Guildford-based ethical roaster Redber. Also on offer is a range of green, black and herbal teas, mostly Twinings. There is a range of cakes and pastries, some bought in and some made on site. Proper Portuguese Pasteis de nata, Danish pastries, croissants and carrot cake sit next to vegan flapjacks and chocolate cake. The vegan flapjack was the perfect balance of squidgy, oaty and fruity and not at all sickly. The chocolate vegan cake was, again, not too sweet and for a sponge made without eggs, very ‘cakey’. Cakes cost around £2.50 and coffee £2.25. No milky, tasteless calorific drinks here!
Nick (left) and Ian with a fresh frittata
Lunch is served from noon until 2pm and is all homemade on site. Expect freshly-made soups (virtually all vegan) with the occasional cauliflower cheese soup thrown in for good measure.
I had sweet potato soup with a brown bread roll and butter (vegan spread also available), £4.95 for a large bowl. I was also tempted by the frittata, stacked with fresh vegetables and made with cheddar cheese and free-range eggs. My partner chose baked aubergine with peppers, olives and tomatoes for vegan main, £7.50, or with salad £9.50. Quiches, tarts and frittatas are on the counter every day, plus a range of four freshly-made salads. The red cabbage slaw with fresh mango was a refreshing take on a classic. The food is delightful and feels healthy and clean.
The V Café is intended for those taking Institute courses, but it’s possible to book a table by ringing The Institute on 01483 562142.
The light, breezy and comfortable dining room is steeped in history with solid chairs and tables not too close together. Customers are politely asked to leave their dirty crockery at the hatch to the kitchen. Next to this is a table where visitors are encouraged to take home coffee grinds for use in the garden.
The stained glass is of special note and when I first saw glass etched with ‘Ladies’ Room’, I assumed it was for the powder room. However, Nick told us historically it was a waiting area for women whose husbands were on courses. Today there is no segregation, just a lovely café serving real food in a congenial environment.
essence infoV Café at The Guildford Institute
Ward Street, Guildford GU1 4LH Telephone:
01483 562142Website: www.guildford-institute.org.ukEmail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Shirlee Posner is a food writer and blogger at www.eatsurrey.co.uk
and provides social media management, web copywriting and food photography.