Cardiff’s city centre has its share of big-name fast food outlets. Visitors to the Welsh capital can find two McDonald's and Burger Kings, as well as multiple outlets of Greggs and Subway. Yet if you asked a Cardiff local where you should go for fast food, they’d disregard these places in a heartbeat, and point you in the direction of Chippy Lane.
Wedged between the clubbing hotspots of Mill Lane and St. Mary’s Street, Chippy Lane—or Caroline Street to the uninitiated—is perfectly positioned to welcome the thousands of party-goers who descend on Cardiff’s city centre each year. The choice is bountiful: fish and chip shops, kebab shops, and burger joints that stay open until the early hours. These outlets also serve the city’s loyal sports fans—Wales’ national rugby stadium is just a few minutes’ walk away, and any given international match can draw tens of thousands of spectators.
Chippy Lane's popularity is largely down to word-of-mouth among Cardiff locals and university students, but it has a number of high profile fans too. BBC broadcaster Huw Stephens’ loudly endorsed the street on Twitter, writing: “If any bands visit Cardiff, you have to visit Chippy Lane. It’s the law.”
To learn more about the history of Chippy Lane, I head to Dorothy's—one of the first takeaways to open on Caroline Street in 1953. Founded by Cardiff locals Theo and Maria Stavri, the chip shop is synonymous with Chippy Lane's iconic status. I’ve got my own family history here too: on New Year’s Eve in 1958, my grandfather threw a well-known Cardiff wrong’un through the shop’s window after he tried to extort some cash from his brother, my great uncle. A true hero.
Dorothy's current owner, Tas Asprou, took over his father-in-law's business around eight years ago.
“When they first set Dorothy’s up in ‘53, it was in the middle of nowhere,” explains Asprou when we meet at the chippy. “Then one night, my father-in-law stayed late, and he noticed the club-goers coming in.”
From there, business boomed and gradually, more late-night cafes arrived to cash in on the street’s prime location, welcoming the drunk, hungry masses from nearby clubs and pubs. The street’s reputation grew, and by the seventies, Caroline Street was firmly known as Chippy Lane.
Dorothy's continues to draw the biggest crowds, largely due to its homemade speciality: chicken curry off-the-bone, a lavishly rich dish comprising of slices of chicken carved from its on-site rotisserie, cooked with a curry sauce, and piled on top of a hearty serving of chips. Customers have their own personal additions to the dish, including salt and vinegar, cheese, or sometimes a big buttered bap.
“We actually have confidentiality agreements under the recipe,” Asprou tells me. “There are only two people that know how to make that curry.”
For Asprou, it’s the relationships, as well as the various greasy dishes, that give Chippy Lane its character.
“I think if we didn’t have Chippy Lane, all we'd be left with is places like McDonald’s,” he concludes. “Hopefully we'll stay here a while longer and continue being a part of Cardiff’s history.”
Outside Dorothy’s, I chat to Paul, a local pensioner who's been a regular here for over 40 years.
“We’d always go to Chippy Lane for food after the [rugby] internationals,” he says, gazing wistfully at the “Caroline Street” sign. “This is going back to the eighties—the seventies even. We'd all go and watch the rugby in different parts of the ground, and then meet on Chippy Lane afterwards. Bloody marvellous, it was.”
With hundreds of punters queueing up outside their chosen takeaways each weekend, Chippy Lane isn’t without its problems. In 2011, former Premier League footballer Craig Bellamy was arrested and cautioned for common assault here, and applications for later licensing hours by some of the takeaways were rejected by the city council in 2010, due to high levels of crime on the street. Despite the sometimes lairy crowd, the fluorescent glow of Chippy Lane accompanies many a happy night out.
While drunk crowds are an inevitable staple of the street, other parts of Chippy Lane are changing. In 2010, Greggs opened a store here, and since then an outpost of American burger chain Five Guys has also arrived. Cardiff’s first gay pub, The Kings Cross, was once on the corner of Chippy Lane but has since been converted into a gastropub, despite numerous protests from the LGBTQ community. Even the infamous adult store that sat amongst the takeaways, Colin’s Books, shut its doors in 2017.
Chippy Lane can’t escape the inevitable pressures facing the British high street, but at another takeaway spot, I find out why many independent restaurants here are still thriving.
“Relationships are important," Amir, the daytime manager at Hak's Fish Bar and Kebabs tells me. “If you don't build up a friendship with the customers, they won't come back. That’s how Caroline Street works.”
And what’s the relationship like between the various shops?
“There's a friendly competition,” he tells me. “I mean, we're in a competitive market, but everyone around here has their own regulars, which is great.”
Indeed, direct competition lies across the street in the form of Rotana Wraps, another kebab shop. I wander in and speak to Iead, a server in the shop, about the defining nature of Chippy Lane.
“Customers could go to McDonald's or Subway, but people just love kebabs, don’t they?” he explains. “And they love the buzz of the street, as well.”
“We’re perfectly positioned here," he continues, "and we can have a laugh and a joke with people. Why would you go anywhere else?”
As a local, I’d have to agree. It’s the law, after all.