The Bath and Bristol restaurants with staying power
by Jess Carter
14 August 2019
The restaurant game is tougher than ever – so what do those who have stood the test of time on our local food scene think they got right?
With the constant new restaurant openings, we’re lucky enough to witness on the streets of Bath and Bristol, it’s sometimes easy to allow the mainstays, the old faithfuls, the stalwarts of the local restaurant scene to slip to the back of our minds.
This year saw the end of an era when Bell’s Diner – the famous Picton Street restaurant that was founded in 1976 – closed for good. Sniffle. (It’s not all bad, though, as the site is now in the hands of the Pasta Loco team who, we’re understandably confident, are going to bring it back to life with style.)
This got us to thinking about our local long-serving gaffs. During their runs, they’ve witnessed dining-out habits change and evolve – and have clearly been able to decipher to some degree what it is that they need to do to keep up, to future-proof their business, and keep customers coming back.
Arne Ringner has seen the landscape evolve significantly, having been in the restaurant trade for more than 30 years, founding Glassboat back in 1986.
“The trade was rather different then,” he tells us. “We were maybe only half a dozen places of some quality and reputation in Bristol – I am now thinking of Michaels in Hotwells Road, Harveys in Denmark Street, Jamesons, Markwicks and Howards, to mention some. It was fun, different, and the quality of vintage wine much better.”
But, lo, times change. Customers change. Indeed, the way we use restaurants is certainly not the same as how we did during the boom of the ’80s – something the ebb and flow of the economy has played a huge part in.
“The demise of the banking and financial services industry has had great impact,” Arne says. “These groups knew how to do lunch. Three hours and a bottle of Muscadet each was the norm for a good lunch in the ’80s and ’90s. Nowadays, most lunch trade is made up of the occasional solicitors taking clients out and the passing-by long-weekend tourist. But there is a glimmer of younger professionals coming out for lunch again – although for pleasure and not business.”
The wine-soaked corporate meals that once dominated restaurant dining rooms meant there was an everyday demand for high-end food and refined settings. And the price tag? Not important – these meals were being whacked nonchalantly on the expense accounts of large businesses.
As this practice began to subside (whimper) and the UK hit recessions in the early ’90s and 2000s, a market for more affordable, casual venues emerged – places where families can go out for dinner and young people can hang out over food. Historically, diners generally had the choice of white-tableclothed fine dining or standard pub fare, but not a lot in between.
Thus, a decade ago, Adam Denton founded The Cowshed out of a desire to create a restaurant in Bristol that combined an informal setting with an emphasis on “quality, local produce and excellent service,” he tells us. And he wasn’t the only one to cotton onto this need. Big brands seized the opportunity to fill that casual dining niche and their chain restaurants quickly proliferated. The first branch of Jamie’s Italian – arguably the blueprint of casual dining chains – opened just before The Cowshed, and many more followed.
While these restaurants deserve to be celebrated for allowing eating out to become more attainable for the masses, there was perhaps a precariousness created by the speed at which they multiplied in a quickly evolving market, and there have been several chain closures lately. “The chains over-expanded and are realising that now, as are several big chef names who haven’t found ‘little old Bath’ as easy to conquer as they thought,” says Alison Golden, who has been a chef since 1977 and opened The Circus Restaurant in Bath in 2008.
The faces of local neighbourhoods have seen plenty of transformations in the last decade when it comes to the culinary landscape. One notable area that looks very different now in terms of its food and drink offering is Stokes Croft, which has been home to Poco since 2011.
“The neighbourhood’s changed a lot – and continues to,” says co-owner Ben Pryor. “We’ve seen a lot of new businesses come – and some of them go again too – while we’ve been here, with one or two chains having tried their hand without much luck.
But we’ve also found ourselves with some really inspiring neighbours too. In many ways, along with The Canteen over the road, we were the first to establish in this part of town; if you look around now, though, there are countless amazing options.”
Chandos Road, too – home to Wilsons, Otira, No Man’s Grace (until recently) and Wilks – has steadily grown into a dining destination among residential streets. Christine Vayssade founded Wilks with husband and chef James Wilkins in 2012 – when “there was not much going on, to be honest,” she says. “Seven years down the line, Chandos Road is transformed – it is one of the best streets in Bristol for good food and we are all independent businesses. It’s a vibrant, gorgeous road with a tremendous offering for foodies.
“In Bristol, the variety and the quality of the restaurants has really evolved in the last five years; there is a real dynamism. Young, well-trained chefs have moved to Bristol and opened their own places.”
What we really, really want Diners’ behaviours have evolved alongside the restaurant landscape (let’s not get too caught up in chickens and eggs) and we’re just not looking for the same things from our meals out that we used to. It’s important, then, that restaurateurs stay one step ahead. This is an endeavour that Sam Fryer of Rosemarino in Clifton, in part, attributes the restaurant’s nine years of success to.
“We were one of the first to offer all-day breakfasts and brunches,” he says. “This is still one of the most popular elements of our business, even though it is now well catered for in Bristol,” he says. “We were also one of only a few Italian concepts at the time where pizza isn’t the main focus, preferring a menu which changes frequently and showcases the best of regional Italian cuisine as the seasons change.”
This focus on seasonality and quality of ingredients is something Alison Golden also considers to be the key to happy customers. It’s a consumer expectation that has evolved noticeably over the last handful of years.
“When we first opened, people couldn’t understand why we’d change our menu so often. Now they get the seasonality aspect. Diners also like to know the provenance of ingredients; the Our Suppliers page of our website gets thousands of hits, and people are also happy to pay a little extra to have a local craft beer or white wine from Devon.”
Indeed, the interest we take in the stories behind our food is one of the key characteristics of this generation of diner – we’ve experienced “a huge awakening in our awareness of quality and provenance,” says Ben Pryor. Vague and insincere menu messaging about locally sourced ingredients isn’t satisfying many customers any more; we want stories, names and places. In short, we want ethical control over our decisions.
Thing is, we still want a bargain, an’ all (don’t ask for much, do we?), and those two things don’t exactly go hand in hand.
“Customers do need to be real about the cost of good produce – there are many charlatans out there,” says Adam Denton. “But, at the same time, restaurants need to make sure quality remains high and service spot on when there is so much great choice.”
Indeed, our heightened knowledge of good food, coupled with the rising numbers of places to eat out, means that restaurants have had to up their game to compete. And not just in terms of the food on the plate, but the service, the setting, the atmosphere – it’s kind of a package deal.
Despite 2019 diners being a tougher crowd, there’s a decent number of local joints that have really stood the test of time, despite the well-reported rise in business rates and rents they’re having to endure. What it is about them that’s kept their place in customers’ good books, though, could be any number of things – and changes from restaurant to restaurant.
“For us, getting a Michelin star was the best thing that could have happened in terms of publicity – and it makes an incredible difference every day,” says Christine from Wilks. “Talking about staying power is difficult, but we listen to our guests’ feedback every day, we adapt quickly to situations, and we keep pushing forward trying to improve all aspects of our offering...”
That kind of quick adaptability and timely response to feedback – securing that all-important repeat custom – is something that only indie restaurants are usually capable of (it becomes much harder when there are many levels of management to go through, as is often the case with chains).
“Being a truly ‘neighbourhood’ restaurant with staying power requires a focus on maintaining loyal customers – this has always been one of our main priorities,” says Sam Fryer. “And we will continue to be flexible with our concept. Finding a niche in such a crowded market is a challenge, and it’s easy to be over-precious with your concept.
Getting feedback from your clientele is so important, as these could be the regulars that sustain you for years to come.”
For Ben Pryor, the focus is on his staff as much as the customer, though.
“Our restaurant functions because we have a passionate, skilful and heartfelt team who believe in and love what they do. If our team are happy then our restaurant works, the food and service are at their best and our customers have the best experience. If you have the right culture, I believe that communicates to customers, promotes loyalty and gives staying power.”