I have a rotten memory. Despite that I can still tell you exactly what I had for dinner on every big family birthday when I was a child. Here is the menu in full.
Prawn cocktail, steak and chips (served with a mushroom but definitely no salad or other vegetables), profiteroles and chocolate sauce. I know this because as a family we were creatures of habit. On every special occasion I can remember we
went to the same place.
Bruno’s Italian Restaurant was an institution in Dumfries. Even when I was growing up it seemed to have been there forever. If Robert Burns had wanted to take any of his numerous conquests out for dinner in the town he called home, he would have taken them to Bruno’s.
It nestled in a residential area next to a fish and chip shop which was the route into hospitality for so many Italians settling in Scotland. That proved popular enough for the family to expand into the space next door with a proper restaurant.
With Brexit looming, it is easy to forget the contribution migrants have made to our food culture in Scotland. In Dumfries eating out meant going to Bruno’s or Pizzeria Il Fiume in the Dock Park. The only real alternative was rubbery gammon and tinned pineapple in any number of faded old hotels. In contrast, the Italian restaurants seemed so glamorous.
At Bruno’s that meant exotic dishes like calamari, prosciutto, calzone and saltimbocca. It would be years before my first trip to Italy but here was the next best thing. Of course we never ate any of those things, sticking instead to more familiar options without a vowel on the end, but that wasn’t the point.
Bruno’s was cosmopolitan and just walking through the doors seemed to transform you from Sydney Devine into Luciano Pavarotti.
The music helped. It was a heady mix of Italian classics from the Dean Martin songbook. The lighting was dark and subdued in contrast to the bare bulb brightness of the few other eating places across town. And then there were the staff.
There must have been others but I only remember one waiter who always warmly welcomed us and fussed about my mum in a cloud of aftershave and brylcreem. I don’t recollect his name but I do remember he could flambé veal and fillet fish at the table with ease. Sadly none of his extensive waiter skills were required by our simple tastes. All we required him to do was carry the plates from the kitchen without dropping them and he was more than qualified to do that. He also furnished the wine list. Leather bound, it featured the saying “a day without wine is like day without sunshine”. In Dumfries in the 1980s we were familiar with both.
My dad would study it like Richard Langdon deciphering the Da Vinci Code and then choose the same bottle of Chianti as always. Naturally it arrived at the table in a wicker flask and tasted like cheap Chianti always does.
I don’t remember the last time I had that meal. It may have been my 21st birthday but it’s certainly a long, long time ago. Since then so much has changed. My parents are gone and I’ve travelled the world and eaten all kinds of amazing meals since.
But my love of food and eating out started at 21 Balmoral Road in Dumfries where Bruno’s is celebrating half a century in business. Jamie’s Italian restaurant chain may be struggling but Bruno’s is still going strong because it sticks to the basics of hospitality and never takes its customers for granted. A Trip Advisor post from last month says it all: “Never disappoints: food and service as good as ever.”
Happy Birthday Bruno’s. Restaurants like yours are the backbone of a great industry. It’s been a long, long time but someday, I’ll be back.