Zeffirellis and Fellinis - an Ambleside institution

The restaurants, cafe, bars and cinemas can serve 1,000 people a day

The restaurants, cafe, bars and cinemas can serve 1,000 people a day - Credit: Archant

It’s 35 years since Derek Hook and his family launched a business which has grown into an Ambleside institution, writes Eileen Jones

Dorothy Smith and Derek Hook

Dorothy Smith and Derek Hook - Credit: Archant

To the rest of the world they are two of Italy’s most revered film directors. But to anyone who’s ever been to Ambleside, they represent a dynasty which is at the heart of the town’s cultural and social life.

Zeffirellis and Fellinis – no apostrophes, please – between them offer two restaurants, a café, a jazz bar and no fewer than five cinema screens in a town with a population of just 3,000. (That can multiply tenfold at the height of the tourist season).

And like any good organisation with an Italian influence, it’s run by one family, who are celebrating 35 years in business this summer. The founding godfather, and now company chairman, is Derek Hook, a former butcher and rock-band drummer who one day simply put down the meat cleaver and became a vegetarian.

His principles have dominated the business ever since, but in such a subtle way that many visitors are unaware that they are dining in a vegetarian restaurant. The food and the ambiance is so good - the staff hold an award for outstanding service - that the absence of meat becomes irrelevant.

Head chef, Stefan Dumitrascu

Head chef, Stefan Dumitrascu - Credit: Archant

The managing director is Derek’s sister, Dorothy Smith, an elegant and bubbly matriarch who selects the films, does all the programming for the five cinemas and supervises changes to the menu with undimmed enthusiasm. Her husband Graham is a director, along with brother Ray, who also has a career as a singer and ventriloquist on cruise liners.

General manager David ‘Stan’ Stanning isn’t actually a family member, though he has worked at Zeffs since his teens – with a break for a foray into accountancy. But head chef Stefan Dumitzasw has about a dozen of his family working there, including his wife in the box office. The head chef at Fellinis, Scott Graham, has been with the family for 15 years.

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And among the regular diners and café folk are families who came first as children and have grown up with Zeffs. ‘There are people who came here as babes in arms and end up working for us,’ says Dorothy.

On a busy day, more than 1,000 people might be served across the restaurants, café, bar and cinema, and on a busy night Zeffirellis alone has totalled some 450 covers.

Zeffirellis cater for vegans and vegetarians

Zeffirellis cater for vegans and vegetarians - Credit: Archant

Two of the cinema screens are in the main building, the site of a former “flea-pit” picture house which had an auction room in the basement. When screen two was developed in the attic, the whole of Ambleside’s road network was closed by a delivery lorry carrying an enormous RSJ to strengthen the structure. When they took over the running of the cinema, and made the decision to do Italian style food, Derek says the name of Zeffirelli came naturally.

Two further screens are housed down the road in a former school, and the fifth is in the fledgling of the family, Fellinis, opened six years ago in what had been the Conservative Club. Unlike Zeffs, with its emphasis on pizza and pasta for all the family, Fellinis offers what they call a “vegeterranean” menu, fine dining with a Mediterranean influence.

Likewise, the films shown at Fellinis are niche studio and arthouse productions, complemented by screenings of live opera, ballet and theatre. Dorothy says: ‘It’s more aimed at adults, it satisfies a cultural need. We decided that in order to grow the business, we needed another restaurant, with food that was completely different from what we already served.’

Her credentials were impeccable. For six years she and Graham had run the Lupton Tower, a Zeffs’ outpost near Kirkby Lonsdale which won hosts of awards including the best vegetarian restaurant in England. They also made the top ten – of all restaurants, not just meat-free – in the Good Food Guide.

‘I started to learn about vegetarian food,’ Dorothy recalls. ‘I started doing soups and desserts, alongside our chef, and I used John Tovey’s Miller Howe recipes for inspiration – I’d just take the meat away.’

‘It was like going to dine at a friend’s house, only you paid for it! I didn’t plan ahead. I would create menus from day to day, depending on what was freshly available. We were hugely popular. We would take bookings for a month ahead at weekends.’

They moved in 1992 to take on the downstairs café at Zeffirellis; at that time the restaurant was upstairs, and at street level there was also an arcade of shops.

The restaurant was eventually moved downstairs, and expanded as the shops became empty and the space absorbed by the business. Food is still served in the upstairs bar, where on three nights there’s live contemporary jazz and world music.

At each step along the way, the family has invested in the business, with a programme of improvements, re-design and re-decoration. ‘It’s important that we are constantly updating,’ says Dorothy. ‘A business can’t rest on its laurels. And we have found that every time we do something new, more and more people want to come and have a look.’

Derek took early retirement in 2002 when Dorothy became MD, and he plays a background role these days, though he is still the design guru. He’s also responsible for the choice of music: classical during the day in the café, contemporary light jazz at night in the restaurant.

Dorothy is on site most days, though she does take time to spend with her grand-daughter Maisy. Her daughter, Jenny, is a head teacher in Barrow.

‘I still love it, I’ve still got the passion for it,’ she says. ‘I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved, but more than that, I’m pleased with what we’ve done for the locals, for the town. There’s a rich cultural life here.’