Before you go to a restaurant, what do you want — or need — to know most? In our series, The Rundown, we’re sharing all the essentials about newly opened (as well as some of your favourite) restaurants.
In this case, we’re looking at the new Café Cecilia, the highly anticipated debut from chef Max Rocha, renowned for his precise, seasonal cooking style honed at restaurants like The River Café and St. John Bread and Wine. Overlooking an idyllic stretch of the Regent’s Canal minutes from Broadway Market, early buzz has this newcomer looking like a future classic. Here’s everything you need to know about this exciting new restaurant.
For restaurant fans, the arrival of Rocha’s own establishment is cause for celebration.
To say that Rocha has a following is an understatement. Son to Irish designer and entrepreneur John Rocha (and sister to fashion luminary Simone), the Dubliner’s appeal crosses boundaries between the worlds of restaurants, art, and fashion. The restaurant is named after Max’s late paternal grandmother, Cecilia, who raised his father as one of seven children in Hong Kong. “I chose to name it after her because she saved up money when my dad was 17 to get him a flight to London,” he says. “Without her, he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in to partner with me to open this restaurant.”
Originally working in the music industry, Rocha left due to a mental breakdown and from the pressure of not being in control of artists’ success. “Also,” he says, “I realised working behind a computer didn’t make me as happy as working with my hands.” After working at Skye Gyngell’s restaurant Spring and sharpening his skills at The River Café and Bread and Wine, he’s demonstrated great promise at a series of pop-ups and residencies, leaving many clamouring for more – and duly delivered with the arrival of Café Cecilia.
This Hackney café and restaurant feels informal – but its credentials are impeccable.
Minutes from buzzing Broadway Market, Café Cecilia overlooks a pretty section of the Regent’s Canal, in a site that Rocha and his team secured back in April. Part of a new build, Rocha came across it on Google, and luckily, “the site was with someone with whom [he] had a good relationship as a family in recent years.”
There are few visible signs of the restaurant from the street (bar a door with the restaurant’s logo subtly etched onto glass), and entering the space reveals a starkly elegant, functional room that blends elements of contemporary art gallery with rustic neighbourhood café. Gently whitewashed walls dotted with portraits from family friend Perry Ogden (notably from the artist’s ‘Pony Kids’ series) and sturdy, dark timber furniture are elevated by sleek marble counters, pretty hanging lights, and vases of freshly cut flowers.
“I really want the dining room to feel approachable and special at the same time,” he explains. “Like the nicest café environment, and not too over the top.” Joining him in the kitchen are former alumni from St. John Bread and Wine, and Spring.
“My staff come first and then the food. I feel if your staff are treated well and happy to come to work, then the service and food will sing.”
Meanwhile, front of house duties are handled by the charming Kate Towers, who capably ran the dining room at Rochelle Canteen. Rocha also takes pride in the dining room’s soundtrack; his experience in the music industry translating to playlists that provide the kind of ambience that can easily turn breakfasts into languid, wine-soaked lunches.
Rocha’s approach of prioritising his staff’s wellbeing is one to emulate.
Open for breakfast and lunch from Wednesdays through Sunday, there’s no immediate rush to roll out evening service, or to open earlier in the week. Part of that reasoning is to allow the team to maintain a healthy work-life balance. For Rocha, his team always comes first: “In terms of hospitality, for me, my staff come first and then the food. I feel if your staff are treated well and happy to come to work, then the service and food will sing.”
The menu contains small, meaningful touches that make it a personal affair.
From the restaurant’s namesake and relationships involved in securing its physical space, to the décor and team assembled, and even the music that drifts through the dining room, it’s apparent that Café Cecilia is a personal affair for Rocha. Nowhere is that more evident than in the food, which bears hallmarks of the chef’s previous kitchens – “simple, seasonal food, cooked well” – and the influence of his mother Odette and the food she cooked in Dublin that Rocha grew up eating.
Rocha advises ordering the fritti of sage leaves and anchovy, crisp from the fryer, as a “a little taste of Italy and a lovely way to start the meal.” A terrine of pork and apricot displays some serious charcuterie skills and reminds the chef “of holidays in Paris.” To finish, he advises “the raspberry and almond tart, as it’s my family’s favourite dessert.” Etched on a black chalkboard, the menu changes each day; meanwhile, a daily rotating special (like, for instance, a hefty prime rib for four to share) is also available.
Behind the scenes, longstanding relationships also form the foundation of the menu, with seafood from Ben’s Fish, whom Rocha worked with at St. John (“their service is amazing”); E5 Bakehouse-owned Fellows Farm, who supply the restaurant’s sourdough bread; and McKenna Meats, discovered during lockdown when the chef started doing picnics. “It was these picnics that gave me the confidence to open the café,” he says.
Despite the buzz, Café Cecilia is first and foremost a neighbourhood affair.
As London’s restaurants and their workers emerge from a Covid-induced state of emergency after the past 18 months, any new opening can feel like belated good news. But few have commanded quite the level of organic anticipation as Café Cecilia, amplified through the kind of word of mouth that spreads from a small inner circle to a wider audience.
Attention feels likely – inevitable, even. But the restaurant feels like a more personal, intimate operation, from the trickle of the chef’s friends who first came to visit, to the noticeable lack of conventional publicity that invites the curious to make the trip to Hackney to find out for themselves. Plenty of space is reserved for walk-ins, and Towers, the restaurant’s GM, has welcomed everyone from locals and friends to her old regulars from Rochelle Canteen.
“I guess, working with a new team in a new space. I want to make sure that both the team and the customers feel relaxed and happy,” she says. “It’s a beautiful and considered space, and we want everyone to feel welcome here, be it for a bacon sandwich in the morning to a turbot for three on a Saturday lunch.”
“At Rochelle, we were so fortunate to have regular customers, whether that’s once a day, once a week, once a month,” she continues. “A challenge for me would be to build and maintain that kind of relationship at Café Cecilia with our new guests.”
Café Cecilia is now open from Wednesday to Sunday. Breakfast is open to walk-ins only from 9am, lunch is open to reservations and walk-ins from 12pm. Make a reservation here.