Once upon a time, back in the day, the great restaurant chains – the ones that defined the genre – were new and fresh. Pizza Express expanded hugely from its established Soho base in the ’90s; All Bar One was a child of the same decade; Côte got going some 10 years later. They’re all still out there, some of them even have a good offering, but walking past them’s not hard.
One of the daddies of this kind of dining is Browns, a brasserie and bar in the grand café style that launched in Brighton in the early ’70s and soon spread to a half dozen university towns, like Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford. Offering large cool buildings, done up in slick but simple style, and great service, they were a cut above what most of the high street served up, and – when bought by Bass Brewery – the ’90s saw their offer survive the expansion to many more towns. Eventually, there were 25 or so of them, and I remember going to the Bath version regularly towards the end of that decade; it felt like a treat.
I’ve not been so much recently – but perhaps now’s the time to rediscover Browns, which has just enjoyed something of a refresh. Though the long-established Bristol restaurant – at the top of Park Street, in an especially impressive listed building that’s been the City Museum and Library and the University Refectory in its time – was spruced up a couple of years back, Bath’s has been looking pretty tired for ages now, the white paint chipped, the pot plants looking sorry for themselves.
Visiting post-refurb, however, you can’t fail to be impressed. The building itself has always been one of the most striking-looking places to eat in the city – few outside The Botanist can compete for spectacle – and walking in now you see it with fresh eyes. The Old Police Station on Orange Grove was built in 1865, a handsome Georgian two-storey affair by a local architect, Major Charles Edward Davis; he would go on to build the Empire Hotel next door. It also held the local Magistrates Court with cells in the basement (now the loos). There was no separate fire brigade back then, so the city’s fire engine was kept in a shed behind, with each constable trained on its hose pipes.
This was a working police station until 1966, when everything moved over to Manvers Street, but there are references to a rich history still to be enjoyed here, not least in the many black-and-white photographs of mightily moustachioed gentlemen with shiny buttons and impressive helmets.
That aside, the feel is more Great Gatsby than Dixon of Dock Green. The entrance hall opens onto a tall-ceilinged space of pillars and nooks and crannies, which becomes spectacularly double-height in the centre, around the bar. ’Twas always thus, but none of it’s looked this good in years: the walls are now sage green, the leathers and velvets of the seating are reds and blues, and strikingly tiled and wooden floors draw attention to themselves. One more addition: a baby grand piano, which is played live for guests on Thursdays and Sundays.
The overall impression is less tired colonial bar from the English Raj – all ceiling fans and bentwood chairs – and rather more colourfully Art Deco. It’s a nice place to be then, totally tempting as a place to rock up for drinks, but what about the food?
The all-day menu inevitably feels a little all-things- to-all-men – but then that’s Browns all over. Just as it was in its early days, when Oxbridge undergraduates would rock up with their folks and everyone could find something to enjoy.
Pan-seared wild Atlantic scallops, with smoked pancetta, caramelised apple, parsnip purée and a grain mustard dressing (£10.25) was the costliest of the starters – most being under £8 – but tasted special enough to justify it; almost sweet enough to be a fishy pudding – if you can imagine such a thing.
Devon crab and avocado (£9.50) came with the crab stacked on top of roughly cut chunks of avo, packed into a neat circle. The meat was delicate and fresh – subtly sweet – and the fruit underneath at just the right point of ripeness, if rather fridge cold. Alongside was brown crabmeat mayo and some lightly toasted slices of sourdough.
For mains was steak – recommended by our server and sourced from Browns’ own farms. The 7oz fillet (£25.50, slightly more expensive than the marginally larger ribeye or sirloin) came with skinny fries and lightly-dressed watercress. I went for peppercorn sauce from a choice of three, and we shared a couple of sides: moist and tasty roast portobello mushrooms (£3.50) and Tenderstem broccoli with savoury nut granola (£3.95), the latter element offering a pleasing contrast of crunch.
The half roast chicken (£16.50) – the menu makes a point of telling us it’s ‘British’ – comes with Boulangere potatoes, creamed leeks and a decadently rich red wine Bordelaise sauce. The bird had a nice golden skin, the butchered half hiding a pile of creamed leeks beneath; it could have been juicier, but there was plenty of sauce to add moisture. The spuds lived in their own little iron pot, sliced up nice and thin under a golden topping. These too were fine, but though the edges were nice and crispy at the top, the layers at the bottom remained slightly undercooked.
For pudding were the recommended creme brûlée (£6.95) and salted caramel profiteroles (£7.25), the first large and creamy with a couple of biscuits on the side, the latter light and airy – a great way to lighten up such potentially heavy elements as salted caramel and toffee sauce.
All in all, then, a good meal – and served with professionalism and knowledge, too. (We enjoyed well-picked glasses of individual wines to match each course.) Browns has always been a sophisticated mainstream choice, but Bath’s venue has never looked better than right now. It’s not crazy-cheap exactly, but the crowd-pleasing food and beautiful design mean a good experience seems virtually guaranteed.
Browns, Old Police Station, Orange Grove, Bath, BA1 1LP; 01225 461199