“I really wanted to spend more time cooking,” Emma says, looking back at how it all started. “I was very busy in my final year studying architecture, and as soon as I graduated, I decided to start my food blog. I always thought it would be fun to have a café, but at the time, it was just a pipe dream.”
Fast forward a few years and here we are, sitting in her café, which, despite only being open a couple of months, has already amassed a loyal following. “After setting up small food stalls at markets and doing some private catering, we started looking for a place to open a café, but the first time we came to see this place in San Gwann, we thought it was too big for what we had in mind, and way over budget,” she recalls.
Despite this, it stuck in her mind, and she returned a year later. A year of negotiations and five long months of renovations came next, which transformed the Half Way Inn – an old-school bar where the old Darts Club used to meet – into Emma’s Kitchen.
“It had been shut for 15 years after the owner passed away unexpectedly, and looked quite different,” Emma says, explaining how the layout needed to be shifted around. Pointing out the previous location of the bar along one side, Emma, whose architecture background proved invaluable throughout the renovation, explains that the opening where the current bar area stands was originally closed off. “That was a wall with a much smaller opening into the games room. We split the games room in half and put up a wall, with half being the bar and half being the kitchen.”
One of the major differences however was the windows and door. “These are the original openings, but for some reason in the 80s, the windows and door had been made smaller, and aluminium was put in – possibly because of the heat. Opening them up made the biggest difference to the space.”
When it came to décor, Emma and Matthew had one rule of thumb – simplicity, and staying true to the space. “It’s a beautiful space, so we didn’t really feel like it needed a lot done to it,” says Emma. “There were also some elements that we wanted to keep, out of respect for the history of the place,” Matthew adds, like the darts score board which now displays the menu, as well as the original wooden panelling, which the pair removed, treated and painted for re-use around the bar.
In fact, both Emma and Matthew were heavily involved in the entire process, making it a true labour of love. With a distinct vision in mind, they custom designed, hand built and hand painted almost everything inside Emma’s Kitchen, and it shows. “When you have a very specific idea of what you want, it’s very difficult to find it, so we did a lot ourselves. Apart from the fact that we were also on a tight budget,” says Emma, pointing to the copper lamps that illuminate the bar – “I wanted copper lights in that style but could only find silver, so we took them apart and sprayed them.”
The bulbs hanging from the ceiling were also put together by the couple themselves. “They had to be custom made to fit the size of the room, so we bought rolls of wire, bulbs and fittings, measured each fitting and how we wanted them to hang,” Emma continues, joking that she and Matthew spent a couple of cosy Friday nights in… wiring lights!
They also roped in Emma’s father and uncle when it came to installing the glass window and door panes using the traditional putty technique, after the craftsman they had lined up to do it had an accident and broke his arm. “Very few people still do this nowadays, and we couldn’t find anyone else. Luckily, my uncle, who is really handy, stepped in and we did it ourselves. There are 59 panes in all, and it took ages!” she laughs.
The design style they achieved is part industrial – thanks to features like the original xorok supported by steel beams – and part homely, which is just the way they intended. “We wanted people to feel at home, as if they were actually coming in to someone’s kitchen,” they say.
Meanwhile, while there are a number of defining features within the space, Emma considers the patterned tiles and large windows to be the most recognisable and indicative. And what about that wonderful bar, I ask? She laughs as she tells me her final story – sourcing the repurposed wood counter top. “I love the idea of using old wood, so I was trying to explain this to my carpenter, but he couldn’t understand what I meant. At one point I looked at his work top, which was covered in sawdust, and as I started clearing it away, I said, ‘this is what I mean, like this! Why don’t you give me this?’ He said, ‘take it!’, but didn’t really believe me.” It was only when he saw it in place that her carpenter understood – and looking at how it all came together so beautifully, it would really have been hard not to.
This is a snippet. Read the full feature on the latest issue of Commercial Courier.