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Past Times

Dundee’s Deep Sea Restaurant battered the opposition by catching famous customers like Billy Connolly

The Deep Sea Restaurant in Dundee's Nethergate opened in November 1939 and would go on to become part of the fabric and history of the city. reports.
Graeme Strachan
The Deep Sea restaurant originally opened at 134a Nethergate. Image: DC Thomson.
The Deep Sea restaurant originally opened at 134a Nethergate. Image: DC Thomson.

At one time there were almost 100 chippies in Dundee serving up vinegar-soaked chips alongside battered fish in wrappings of greaseproof paper.

The most famous opened on the south side of Nethergate in November 1939.

The Deep Sea Restaurant would go on to become part of the fabric and history of the city over 75 years with a host of well-known celebrities among its customers.

Not that this success was easily come by.

The man who made The Deep Sea a part of Dundee life was Bruno Dello Sterpaio, who arrived as a 13-year-old from Tuscany to work with the Cardosi family in Inverkeithing.

The young man learned his trade there before moving to Dundee where he opened his first chippie at Polepark in 1931.

Eight years later he moved to 134a Nethergate, a site described by doubting business acquaintances as being in the wrong place and likely to last only a few months at best.

Deep Sea owner Bruno and Lina pictured before they were married. Image: Supplied.
Bruno and Lina pictured before they were married. Image: Supplied.

The world was an uncertain place.

The Second World War was only two months old and setting up a new business was something of a risk.

Family ties were cemented when Bruno married Lina, the eldest of the Cardosi daughters, in April 1940, in St Patrick’s Church in Dundee.

But the wartime years were not the best of times for a young Italian to be in this country.

And just eight weeks after the wedding, Bruno was taken away to internment on the Isle of Man, after Benito Mussolini declared war on France and Great Britain.

After a spell there he was moved to the Pitlochry area, where he worked as a chef in the Atholl Palace Hotel.

Altogether he was away for almost three years, during which time the business was maintained by a distant relative called Mrs Mulligan, assisted by the new bride, her mother and sister.

The shop was originally for carry-outs only and the family policy was never to use old newspapers as an outside wrapping because it “belittled the product”.

In the early days there was fish and chips, maybe white pudding and then chicken at the weekends.

By 1952 Bruno had opened a restaurant upstairs in The Deep Sea, which by now had become one of the city’s most popular eating spots.

The stars from the Palace used to enjoy a supper at the Deep Sea. Image: DC Thomson.

In the days of the Palace Theatre many of the music hall stars including Johnny Victory, Alec Finlay and the Alexander Brothers dropped in for supper.

As an aspiring young actor in the 1960s, Brian Cox spent a period working for showbiz impresario Ronnie Coburn when he had a spell managing the Palace.

He would make a bee-line for its battered treats.

The original shop on the Nethergate, with its famous long and narrow tea room, had a special place in the hearts of Dundonians in the 1950s and 1960s.

Frying in tandem in the 1960s

In 1966, with the premises facing a future threat of demolition to make way for an inner ring road, Bruno expanded the business across the road to larger premises.

But The Deep Sea survived while streets vanished.

They both carried on frying in tandem.

Bruno hung up his apron and retired in 1971, after 50 years in the catering trade, handing over control of the businesses to his two sons, Raymond and Lawrence.

The good times continued.

The Deep Sea provided the chip butties during a famous booze-up at Dundee’s Angus Hotel in 1980 that Billy Connolly described as one of the funniest nights of his life.

Billy Connelly in full flow during the McGonagall dinner in 1980. Image: DC Thomson.
Billy Connelly in full flow during the McGonagall dinner in 1980. Image: DC Thomson.

The first William McGonagall Supper was being unleashed on Dundonians and over the BBC Scotland airwaves to raise funds for the new Dundee Rep Theatre in Tay Square.

McGonagall was a Dundee carpet weaver with a side-line in terrible verse who carried an umbrella to protect himself from rotten fruit thrown at him by strangers.

The audience of 500 conformed to the rule of bunnets and shawls to be worn and each mention of the Dundee Bard’s name prompted a rise to attention and a toast.

The Big Yin’s original take on McGonagall predictably brought the house down.

People would want fish. We’d serve thousands of fish and chips to Dundee people on holiday from the factories.”

Lawrence Sterpaio

At the end of the night Connolly invited the stragglers to the lounge of the Angus Hotel and said he had a very special surprise for everyone – a chip butty.

He had sent an order over to the Deep Sea Restaurant to make up 100 chip butties and the Angus Hotel manager was persuaded to hold a lock-in until the wee small hours.

On August 17 1986 the original shop at 134a Nethergate closed.

All business was transferred to the larger premises at 81 Nethergate with additional opening hours.

Late opening until 10.45pm was introduced on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Joanna Lumley alongside Lawrence and Raymond during her 1989 visit to The Deep Sea. Image: DC Thomson.
Joanna Lumley alongside Lawrence and Raymond during her 1989 visit to The Deep Sea. Image: DC Thomson.

New Avengers actress Joanna Lumley swapped Chekhov for chips to enjoy a fish supper during a break from performing The Cherry Orchard at Dundee Rep in February 1989.

In November 1989 Bruno, Lina, Raymond and Lawrence celebrated half a century of serving up suppers in the company of Lord and Lady Provost Mitchell.

With a sit-down meal in the Deep Sea, of course.

Lawrence and Raymond Sterpaio with Deep Sea staff during the 50th anniversary celebrations in 1989. Image: DC Thomson.
Lawrence and Raymond Sterpaio with Deep Sea staff during the 50th anniversary celebrations in 1989. Image: DC Thomson.

“As the restaurant is one of the city’s institutions, we thought it fit to invite Lord Provost Mitchell and his wife and the district council’s chief executive, Mr James Hoey, and his wife for a meal to mark the anniversary,” said Raymond.

Lord Provost Mitchell, before tucking into his fish supper, presented Raymond with a specially-engraved council plaque to mark the occasion.

Deep Sea restaurant cutting from 1989 celebrating 50 years of fish suppers in 1989. Image: DC Thomson.
Celebrating 50 years of fish suppers in 1989. Image: DC Thomson.

Bruno died in 1992 at the age of 85.

Lina was still very much part of the scene and her sons would never have dreamed of taking any major decisions without consulting the family matriarch.

The Deep Sea battling for takeaway supremacy in Dundee

Chinese, Indian and Italian takeaway dishes becoming more popular, rising cod prices and alterations to the licensing laws all affected The Deep Sea during the 1990s.

When pubs were all closed by 10pm, they could guarantee a rush of customers around that time.

Now they opened later and often offered a wide selection of their own pub grub.

The amount of fish being sold was only a fraction of what used to be served up, which meant stocking a variety of alternative dishes to compete with other outlets.

Raymond Sterpaio cooking fish in 1991. Image: DC Thomson.
Raymond Sterpaio cooking fish in 1991. Image: DC Thomson.

Fish and chips, white puddings, sausage suppers, chicken and mock chop were now joined on the menu by mixed grills, macaroni, steaks, baguettes and baked potatoes.

There were peaks and troughs to navigate.

But The Deep Sea was still going strong in 2013 when an Evening Telegraph advertising feature described it as “the city’s first and finest takeaway”.

Nothing lasts forever, though.

Lawrence, Dot and Raymond Sterpaio with the last fish supper in 2014. Image: DC Thomson.
Lawrence, Dot and Raymond Sterpaio with the last fish supper in 2014. Image: DC Thomson.

The Deep Sea served up its last supper in July 2014, after Raymond, Lawrence and wife Dorothy called time on the family business to enjoy a well-earned retirement.

There were many tears shed and memories shared as hungry diners queued out the door for their final chance to sample the Nethergate chipper’s famous fried fare.

Lawrence said: “It reminds me of the glory days in the early ’60s, when these two weeks were the holiday weeks.

“People would want fish. We’d serve thousands of fish and chips to Dundee people on holiday from the factories.”

The Deep Sea closed in 2014 but the building is still home to battered fish. Image: DC Thomson.

Four generations of the family were there to watch the final fish go into the fryer, and serve the still-satisfied customers their piece of history.

James Carter tucked into the last fish — “nice, crispy, very fresh” — before the lights were turned off and the door was shut on 75 years of history.

New owner Gordon Spink opened the Tailend restaurant there in the spring of 2015, following a £200,000 refurbishment and it is still going strong in 2023.

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