Populated as Bath and Bristol is these days by nationally celebrated restaurants, top-pedigree chefs, a throng of menus that span all tastes and occasions and an engaged audience who pounce on all of the above as soon as mealtime rolls around, it can be difficult to remember that the South West food and drink scene doesn’t actually revolve around that patch of land. Sorry to break it to you.
There are towns and cities with whom we share the foot of this isle where the food scene is really hotting up, but many of us are too distracted – discussing where serves the ultimate burger while chewing on a mouthful of artisan sourdough pizza and thinking about which new tap room to visit later – to realise. There are worse places, for instance, to find yourself stranded with a rumble than Cheltenham, and Cornwall is littered with Michelin-starred chefs and first-rate seafood. Exeter, too, has been quietly gaining real momentum when it comes to its restaurant offering – and it’s unsurprising, with the great-quality produce that’s knocked out in Devon.
This city might be petite but it’s got character – think a cathedral with a 900-year history and a famous Premiership rugby team – and during the last few years its eating-out scene has been growing too, with clusters of restaurants scattered about the city.
Buzzing Queen Street is home to some familiar faces of the high street restaurant scene like Pho, Comptoir Libanais and Absurd Bird, and is framed by the restored neo-classical market façade – all Bath stone and Greek pillars – which Charles Fowler, also responsible for Covent Garden’s architecture, worked on.
While you’ll see some more well-known brands elsewhere in the city, there is an increasing number of intriguing independents and kooky one-offs to stumble upon, too, in other pockets of foodie activity. The Quay is home to The Waterfront, The Prospect, Rockfish and Dr Ink’s Curiosities (more on there later); Cathedral Corner has South Street Standard, Al Farid and The Beer Cellar; and the West Quarter boasts The Flat, Angela’s and Sacred Grounds.
Sacred Grounds is one of the newest kids on the Exeter block, having opened last October. This cool, modern café has a calming aesthetic, helped along by the full-length windows through which the daylight streams, vintage furniture and abundant foliage, while the red brick, steel pillars and low-hanging bulbs add an industrial edge (the stylish space was created by the couple behind lifestyle shop, No Guts, No Glory). Everything on the innovative, experimental menu is 100 per cent plant-based – an ethos that is becoming more widespread in Devon’s capital, as we’ll see later – and the offering changes regularly. (Try the buckwheat waffles or traditional Danish sourdough smorbrods.)
This caff was born from the rise of the local food scene and galvanised by the success of its fellow indies, co-owner Hayley Maker tells us.
“Places like The Flat, the Exploding Bakery and No. 1 Polsloe (which have been firm favourites of ours for the past few years) really inspired us to create Sacred Grounds,” she says. “We have lots of plant-based indie bakers and food producers that are making waves and can be seen at Exeter’s popular vegan market – where they always sell out of food. I have a feeling that we’re just at the beginning of a developing scene here in Exeter.”
Red Panda was another newcomer to the city last year – also super vegan-friendly – and serves a small menu of South East Asian street food to take away, made using authentic Asian recipes. Its owner, James McCarthy, agrees that there’s a real whiff of confidence and creativity in the Exeter food scene right now.
“The underlying spending power of the student population makes the city economy very strong, which in turn feeds the confidence to start indie businesses,” he says. “There is also a good sense of community within the independents, and an understanding that no-one is going to only want to eat one type of food, so we can all coexist and work with each other.”
(If you fancy checking this place out, we hear the baos and Asian salads are big hits. Just saying.)
Continuing backwards in time to May 2017, The Flat launched on Fore Street with a menu of North Italian-style pizzas, made using the best, most ethical (often organic) ingredients the team can find. The offering here leans, again, to sustainable vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, with popular offerings being the Smoked, featuring smoked cheese, red onion chutney and mushrooms, and the new Sfilatino, a folded pizza containing creamy cheese, walnuts and thyme.
“The vegan landscape is really blossoming, in Exeter,” says Chloe Whipple, who co-owns the restaurant with Pietro Chiereghin. “Two new fully vegan cafés have opened in the area this year, all of our favourite places to eat offer beautiful veggie and vegan options, and there is a monthly vegan market.
“It is really exciting that for a small city there is so much we can offer those who previously would have been banished to the chips and salad option when eating out.”
Also celebrating its second birthday this year is urban-style burger gaff Meat 59. This is, of course, a departure from the vegan concept, but the focus on best-quality ingredients is still very much apparent.
“We pride ourselves on burgers made in-house using West Country meat,” says co-founder Jenna Heasman. “Sourcing locally is really important to us. We feel that meat should be looked on as a treat, and therefore it’s about quality.
“Our two most recent specials, Fish Out of Water using Brixham white fish, and our Lamb Bamba using Dartmoor lamb, have been really popular. Customers look for more than your average burger these days, and we are always experimenting and aim to bring something different.”
As well as with food, new indies have been upping the bar when it comes to drinks on this turf, too. There are some top wines, plenty of craft beers and imaginative cocktails made with homemade ingredients to be supped in stylish and unique bars.
Dr Ink’s Curiosities was opened in 2016 by bar pro Patrick Fogarty and hospitality consultant Tom Cullen, and is really experience-driven – both in terms of concept and service.
The bar is inspired by the cocktails of the Victorian era, and the team spend a year researching and developing each new menu, looking to history books, vintage recipes and popular events and ingredients of the time. There is also a real seasonality in the offering, explains Patrick.
“There is lots of elderflower, dog rose, honeysuckle, and rhubarb at the moment, so those flavours dominate,” he tells us. “A popular drink right now is our Tyger Tyger, inspired by Blake’s poem, which contains tropical Indian flavours with Tanqueray Rangpur gin.
“Exeter has seen a plethora of casual dining groups come in the last four years, but it seems that people are looking for something beyond that now, and the indie scene is championing it.”
Kate Wilkinson of the cool Circa 1924 – a bar-restaurant with cocktails of home-infused spirits mixed downstairs, and elegant dishes featuring great local produce in the first floor dining room – agrees.
“We have seen a real change in the way consumers in Exeter are choosing to eat, and have noticed a genuine uptake in support of independent restaurants across the city over the last few years,” she says.
If you visit, try the new house sharing menu – a selection of 10 plates like pappardelle with broad beans, peas, courgette and goat’s curd, and Exmoor venison Carpaccio with anchovy mayo, cornish gouda and crispy capers.
Oliver Coysh, co-founder of the well-loved Exploding Bakery, also notes that there’s a question of quantity versus quality when looking at the development of Exeter’s food scene.
“I feel it’s split in two directions,” he says. “One features great people creating great places, like Exe Coffee Roasters, The Flat and Sacred Grounds. The other direction is more chains. These venture capitalist-backed businesses can be pretty damaging to the local economy; however, they do serve a purpose, creating a stepping stone for introducing exotic flavours.”
Exploding Bakery is a popular, contemporary café that’s all about good-quality lunches and great cakes at affordable prices – think soups or salad bowls for £3.50 to take away, or sourdough toasties for a four quid, eat-in. They’ve also recently introduced new evening services, where a handful of small plates sit alongside natural wines on the menu – a concept that differs from the café offering, but that holds true to the team’s focus on well-thought-out food and drink that comes from local producers.
The Oddfellows is another long-established culinary hangout in Exeter. Gastropub in concept, it makes the most of what is in season and plentiful in Devon. Dishes include wild rabbit terrine with smoked bacon jam, thyme crackers and cornichons, and herb gnocchi with pea, mint, pine nuts and whipped feta. Brunches have arrived here now too, so you needn’t wait for lunchtime in order to tuck in.
Co-founder Faye Williams thinks this is a city really worth exploring – just make sure you stroll off the beaten path.
“So many new places have opened up in the high street area in the last five years,” she says. “Some have lasted, some haven’t. I’m not against chain casual dining, and some are pretty good, but if you take the time, there are some fantastic, slightly hidden independent eateries that are doing some truly great food with great fresh ingredients.”
Lauren Filtcroft of the long-established Harry’s restaurant agrees with Faye, and has noticed the way that this influx of eateries has begin to shape how people use their local restaurants.
“We have had many casual dining eateries open in Exeter, and this has had an impact on the way people eat out. We have noticed a rise in casual dining, but also in celebratory meals here at Harry’s, for birthdays and anniversaries. We love being able to make those events extra special for our guests.”
Indeed, there are some touches you’ll get from those smaller indies that larger restaurants just can’t offer, and Harry’s has certainly been getting them right, weathering the unpredictable restaurant market for 26 years. Now run by a second generation of the Pounds family, it’s a great example of an independent joint with staying power – one that puts quality ingredients (in everything from seasonal mains to sharing steaks and Mexican dishes) and top-notch hospitality first.
Exeter, then, has got it going on – a city that’s beginning to really come into its own.
Deborah Clarke (who co-founded Southernhay House, a hotel of laid-back luxury with its own restaurant), says that Exeter is having to up its game for ever-more discerning diners, and that there’s certainly potential for it to be a real culinary destination, what with a host of great independents and the growing accessibility of the region’s fantastic produce (which she credits, in part, to the likes of Darts Farm and Greendale).
For this hospitality pro, though, there is yet more opportunity to really maximize on the amazing supply, and still plenty more ground to be made up.
So, keep your eye on this budding city – as good as it is right now, we have a suspicion it’s only going to get better…