The People of Gibraltar
1960 - Smokey Joe - No Ordinary Restaurant

Manolo Martinez

I expect most readers of this series (1) apart from the very young (if any), will recall that eating-house in Lynch’s Lane called Smokey Joe, which in its time became practically an institution.

Main Street with Smokey Joe Eating House sign pointing towards Lynch's Lane on the left ( c1960)

Its demise in the years following the closure of the frontier (2) heralded the drastic changes that would take place in Gib in - among other things - the catering and victualling trades. Denied access to the many popular eating and drinking places across the border Gibraltarians began to look homewards for their Saturday night out, and suddenly it became a good business proposition to open a fully-fledged restaurant or pub-steakhouse in Gib - To what extent may be judged by the number of these establishments that have sprung up all over the place in the last decade.

But when the frontier was open it was difficult to attract local customers. For obvious reasons; not only was food good and cheap in Spain but people naturally wanted a change of atmosphere.

Casa Alfonso on the banks of the Rio de la Miel in Algeciras was one of the many establishments in the Campo area that would have competed quite easily with anything that Gibraltar had to offer - This, by the way, was one of Eric Chipulina's favourite haunts (2)

Thrived - Yet Smokey Joe thrived. Of course, it was no ordinary restaurant. It catered for a special need. For one thing, just down the road was Casemates barracks which quartered a whole regiment of hungry young men who sooner or later got browned off with Army cooking and found Smokey Joe not only a refreshing change but also geared to their taste.

For another apart from the few locals who habitually frequented the place, many of the commuting Spanish workers found it more convenient to have their midday meal at Smokey’s rather than bring with them their traditional "costo". There was also an important third category of customers, which I’ll leave for later.

The first blow came when they began to move the military from the several town barracks to the South District. The second was when Spanish labour was withdrawn by the Franco regime.(3) Smokey Joe lingered on for a few years, but with his real raison d'ĂȘtre gone he finally packed up.

By "He" I mean the proprietor, the late Manolo Martinez who ran the place with an unruffled efficiency aided by a bevy of female cooks occasionally to be glimpsed in the heart of the smoky kitchen that probably gave the place its name. 

Square Meal - Manolo had done away with all superfluities and niceties and concentrated on the business of providing a working man with a square meal at a price he could afford. And the fare at Smokey’s was not only plentiful but wholesome and robust.

I don’t suppose many locals, apart from those few regulars already mentioned, ever ventured into Smokey’s. But for a few shillings you could stuff yourself on a mixed grill of eggs, sausages, bacon and chips, washed down with a pint of tea or coffee. Out of courtesy Manolo made an exception and served ladies their tea or coffee in conventional cups and saucers. But invariably these were indignantly rejected, with the demand that they be served in standard pint glasses like everybody else.

A favourite with the Spaniards was Smokey’s homemade soup with a poached egg floating in it. And the desperately ravenous were offered for the sum of five shillings (25p) a huge plate on which was piled up, somewhat after the fashion of the Scandinavian smorgasbord, a sample of practically every item on the bill of fare. In fact, a person with a normal appetite could have a square meal for very little indeed. Among Smokey’s clientele was course, the Navy when there were ships in port.

Craving - Liberty men spent most of their time in town drinking but drunks often feel a sudden craving for food and the place to go to was definitely Smokey Joe’s. As a result the place could get pretty rowdy some evenings, and presented Manolo with problems that had nothing to do with catering,

For example, on one occasion the supporters of one ship's football team were celebrating a victory at Smokey’s. All was going reasonably well until, above the pandemonium inside, Manolo’s sharp ear caught the unmistakable noises of the rival team’s supporters as they approached via Turnbull’s Lane. Having no illusions that there would be much left of his restaurant if ever the twain should meet, he promptly phone the Shore Patrol who arrived in the nick of time.

Smokey’s was also a magnet to hitchhikers and the like. And last but not least it also enjoyed what could only be classified as a prestige clientele, for the place had something of an international reputation among the yachting fraternity

Yachtsmen - Yachtsmen from many parts of the world - among them the wealthy and the famous, visiting Gib for the first time came asking for Smokey Joe by name. Someone gave Manolo the idea of keeping a visitors’ book, which he proudly showed me once, and among the first signatures was that of no less a personage than the Marquis of  Milford Haven. (4) By popular request too Manolo had a rubber stamp made with the name of the restaurant and customers came from far and wide to have their passports stamped with it so they could show their friends back home that they had been to Smokey Joe.(5)

Lynch's Lane not much changed long after Smokey Joe had closed - the restaurant entrance was on the right near the aluminium beer casks

What wouldn’t many a struggling restaurateur give to enjoy a reputation like that! No doubt with some of the upper crust patrons it was a case of slumming, - but they still came. There was certainly nothing gimmicky about the place; an unpretentious workaday eating-house. And that was probably what attracted these people who could certainly afford to eat a la carte at the Rock wherever they pleased.

Written by Eric Chipulina.

1. "Remembering" - Gibraltar Chronicle (Possibly late 1990s )
2. So much so that he wrote another article on this well known eating place.
3. The frontier was closed in 1969 and remains so until it was partially reopened in 1982.
4. Another was Ken Livingstone - ex mayor of London who visited Gibraltar in 1966. 
This is how he described it in his memoirs. 
Everything was very expensive and went to Smokey Joe's for our meals, which consisted of chips and grease with everything.
5. Apparently the legend was "I've eaten at Smokey Joe's". The Passport Office, however, took a dim view of all this. They visited Manolo and threatened to lock him up. After that he simply stamped your hand.