New restaurants seem to be popping up everywhere in Nottingham. The city is home to Michelin star and AA Rosette joints and several others owned by celebrity chefs.
Yet, remarkably, a small family-run business in Sherwood is one of the city’s highest-rated and leading restaurants on TripAdvisor, even holding the number one spot for months in 2016: Ania Polish Restaurant. Jamie Barlow tucked in his bib in the name of research.
Between a takeaway and a butcher’s shop on Mansfield Road, Sherwood, just across the road from Wetherspoons pub The Samuel Hall, there is nothing striking to suggest that here lies one of the most popular restaurants in Nottingham.
It has no website, instead relying on a Facebook page, and is virtually fully-booked five nights a week with locals, both English and Polish, flocking to tuck into traditional, hearty Polish dishes such as ‘pierogi z mięsem’: pasta parcels filled with meat and onion, topped with bacon and onions.
Inside, it is relatively small and cosy, with subdued lighting and candles creating an intimate feel.
Tourists from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and America have all dined at the popular eating house, while a family from Hong Kong habitually return twice a year.
For months in 2016, Ania Polish Restaurant topped a list of 1,129 restaurants as the best in Nottingham according to Trip Advisor, and currently sits third behind only Veeno, Middle Pavement and the Calcutta Club, Maid Marian Way.
The secret to its success has been word of mouth.
Owner Ania Kisielowski moved to England from Wroclaw, a city in Western Poland, in 1985 after marrying her husband, and she first worked in the UK as a waitress.
But she felt she could offer more and set up the restaurant ten years ago.
“I knew that a lot of English people like Polish food,” she says.
“And this was at a time when Poland had just joined the EU as well. So there were future Polish generations coming.
“This place was to let and I remember when I walked in, I thought: ‘Oh, yes, I could see a little restaurant here.'”
Ania, 54, lives in Aspley and works full-time at the restaurant with her son Daniel, 24.
The menu has largely remained the same since the beginning and punters’ favourite meals include pierogi pasta dishes and ‘gołąbki’: cabbage filled with rice and meat, served with a mushroom sauce.
The restaurant offers Polish wines and lagers, such as Zywiec and Lech, and flavoured vodkas – including raspberry, cherry and hazelnut.
Ania used to import all the ingredients from Poland, but nowadays gets them fresh from Polish shops around Nottingham. Main courses range from £8.50 to £12.50.
“I never change the menu because I tried once and people told me not to do it. They didn’t want anything different to what is on offer. What I set up is working,” Ania says.
“Maybe in the future I’ll have to do something different. Even on Valentine’s Day I sometimes think I need to do something different and do a special Valentine’s menu. But a lot of people just love pierogi on Valentine’s Day, a bit of pasta, and they enjoy it.”
At the time of writing, the restaurant has received 476 reviews on TripAdvisor, of which 381 of those have been ‘Excellent’ – the highest possible rating – which have enabled it to become ranked as one of the city’s best.
Ania says word of mouth has been crucial and positive reviews on TripAdvisor have helped to attract more customers to the eatery because of the restaurant’s great reputation.
“Since we opened, we’ve never, ever advertised this place anywhere. We’ve never advertised in the newspaper because I think advertising should be through word of mouth,” she says.
“We tell people if they have enjoyed their meal to please tell their friends or family.
“TripAdvisor helps a lot because people do look on the website if they’re going to different cities or going on holiday. If you’re looking for a place to eat, you check because you don’t know where’s good to go.”
In 2012, Ania bought a visitors’ book for diners from outside of Nottingham and England to leave their feedback so she can remember them.
One message left in the book from a tourist in Costa Rica says: “Wonderful meal, tremendous hospitality. Truly outstanding.”
Another was written by a couple hailing from Ontario, Canada, and North Carolina, America. The message says: “What a wonderful experience, the food is delicious and Ania and Daniel made it feel like home-away-from-home.”
Ania says she values every customer and always tries to have a chat with them when the restaurant is not too busy.
She says: “Customers want to be seen not as numbers but as people and friends. If they come in they’ll tell us they’ve been on holiday, or about to go on holiday, and whether there’s been any additions to their family and things like that – or if they’ve had some bad news.
“It’s not just Polish people, it’s English people who we’re quite friendly with.”
She adds: “I find it easy to break the ice. When I look at people I know what I can say and whether I can make some kind of joke. It’s relaxed.
“You have to fight for every single customer, it’s a business. You’ve got to do that to survive.”
As well as being open in the evenings from Monday to Saturday, the restaurant serves Sunday lunch which traditionally in Poland is a dish called ‘kotlet schabowy’, pork loin in breadcrumbs, and is a hit with the restaurant’s regulars.
“That’s a very nice atmosphere as well because we get a release with young children and then there’s quite a few regular customers of Polish origin,” Ania says.
“They come in nearly every Sunday and when they sit down it’s like a little family eating together and talking about what they did in the week.
“People come in for functions: Christenings, or their first Holy Communion. People do want this traditional food.”
Ania says when she retires she hopes Daniel will take over the business and that she has never considered expanding the restaurant or opening another.
She says: “A lot of people ask me if I’m going to expand and make the restaurant bigger, but I say ‘no’ because you cannot have two of the same one. This one is working and it takes quite a lot from my life. But I love it.
“When you open a business you hope it’s going to work. I was like: ‘OK, it’s going to work or it’s not going to work. But if I never try, I’ll never know.’ That’s the truth.
“But, I must admit, I am very positively surprised. It’s so popular.”
The restaurant is closed on Mondays, but open from 6.00pm-11.00pm between Tuesday and Saturday. Sunday lunch is served between 12.00pm and 3.00pm.