La Table is in Merville House, ‘the main house of the estate were the mayor lived in the nineteenth century’, Abel tells me. ‘There was a hunting accident in the family, he was shot by his own gun. This was in the 30s or 40s and his widow didn’t want to live there anymore’. Dark times indeed. ‘During the war the army took it for a barracks, in the 50s…it was given to the people, or abandoned or something. There was a lot of money put in to renovate it. 1.2 million I think. This was in the 60s.’ It doesn’t look like a new building, I remark. It’s a beautiful stately room, chandeliers, oil paintings, ornate wallpaper. ‘Well it’s not. It’s 17th Century, Georgian? Or maybe 200 years old. It used to be offices, grey carpets.’
Now it’s a spacious tea room, a patisserie school and a function event just behind Belfast’s AbbeyCentre. I met Abel Mehablia at a Business Enterprise course early last year. He’s from Paris previously. The tables have grabbing Teapigs menu presenting thirty teas, funny, and engrossing reads. I wish I’d taken my time before ordering coffee, I could have gone through these. Do you get much uptake on these?
‘People have conservative tastes here. They won’t try new things.’ We both like that about coffee. He reflects that La Table is ‘not on the road, it looks like a private street’ but remarks optimistically, ‘If you do something special people will come to you.’ Reputation planting. ‘There are no tea-rooms in Belfast. Malone, Lisburn..’ But these are National Trust or the type, I say. They tend to be place orientated: castles, notable buildings. “The coffee is just right here: it’s strong, not bitter”, I tell him. Abel tries to find the word: ‘character?’ “Yes, that’s It goes down cosy, compatible.
Abel is running the cafe under the Steps to Work Test Trading scheme, which facilitates self-employment for six months. Earned money must be declared but cannot be spent during the period and traders get £10 on top of their fortnightly benefit. (A full-time worker on the scheme gets about £10 a day) Abel has two of his six months left. The set-up took too long, ‘there was not enough time’, and every-day he’s losing money. Worry is foremost on his mind. La Table though is in beautiful grounds, it’s off-street, and even on this rainy day it’s surrounded by pretty flowers and trees. While just off the Shore Road, it feels like the countryside. A squirrel passes. I tell him about Rathlin will all of my enthusiasm, and he recounts the tale of a man in debt in Greyabbey or Portaferry, who got from the bank a loan to buy a house on a hill to turn into a cafe. It was a remote space, with land all around it. ‘It was madness. There were no neighbours, it shouldn’t have worked, he was told. But now it’s a thriving business.’ It’s grown from a cafe into a quality restaurant, nursery, farm shop and has it’s own tourist centre. I’m not sure Abel can manage the same but we can at least try. La Table is a little enclave haven in the middle of commercial industry, safe, quiet from it’s excesses.
La Table Cafe (and the upcoming Patisserie School), are at Merville House, Merville Garden Village (off Shore Road, behind the Abbey Centre) in Newtownabbey, BT37 9TH. The cafe opens Tuesday to Sunday.