If somebody drew up a family tree mapping the history and influence of Bristol restaurants over the past four decades, Bell’s Diner would figure more prominently than most. But how does its latest incarnation fare? MARK TAYLOR finds out.
Interior photos by Cieran Walters
This converted 1950s grocery shop has been one of Bristol’s most iconic restaurants since 1976, when it was opened by Shirley-Anne Bell and John Payne. It soon became this Bohemian quarter’s go-to neighbourhood bistro, and many of the people who worked there went on to shape a significant part of the city’s restaurant scene.
Bell and Payne moved on from Bell’s in the mid-1990s to open another Bristol dining institution, riverstation, with Peter Taylor, at which point the Montpelier bistro was taken over by chef Chris Wicks.
Wicks had previously worked at another hugely influential Bristol restaurant, Rocinantes on Whiteladies Road, run by Connie Coombes and Barny Haughton.
But earlier this year – are you keeping up at the back? – Wicks decided to hang up his apron after 16 years, and he put Bell’s on the market.
In a lovely twist of fate that brings the story full circle, the new custodian of the restaurant just happens to be his former employer, Connie Coombes, who decided to retain the Bell’s Diner name, simply adding ‘& Bar Rooms’ to show it’s a new business with a different style of food.
In many ways, Coombes has taken the restaurant back to its bistro roots, as it’s more informal than it was when there was white linen on the tables and a sommelier to guide you through the wine list.
Coombes struck gold when she recruited head chef Sam Sohn-Rethel, who actually started his career at Quartier Vert (also co-run by Coombes) before working in London at trendy Moro restaurant and returning to Bristol to cook at Bordeaux Quay, The Lido, Flinty Red and, most notably, Manna.
His food is influenced as much by the Middle East as it is the Mediterranean, but it’s strictly seasonal and driven by the produce that arrives in the kitchen each day.
I was lucky enough to secure a table in the characterful front parlour with its racks of wine bottles, old OXO tins, huge vintage coffee roasters and a pull-down poster with the words to ‘Jerusalem’ that looks like it was rescued from a 1950s village school classroom.
A message written on the front window explains that ‘we have wifi, vinyl and a Dansette’ – a quirky reference to the fact there is a record player in the dining room with an eclectic collection of vinyl (some of which can also be bought, for £3 per album). It was The Drifters’ Golden Hits and Fleetwood Mac during my meal, but staff virtually encourage diners to play their own records – it’s just that sort of a place.
A carefully sourced wine list keeps mark-ups to a minimum and offers plenty of good drinking under £20 (and even better drinking as you approach the £40 ceiling). There are also excellent beers from the likes of Wild Beer Co and Camden Town Brewery. As is the current form in many restaurants, a lot of the dishes here come in two sizes and there are several tapas- sized plates, each at £4 or three for £10. In December, the turkey-free Christmas ‘feasting menu’ (£25 per person) follows a similar style, with a vast range of small dishes to share.
More substantial main course-size dishes change daily – it was slow-cooked veal cheeks with celeriac purée, morcilla and Pedro Ximenez (£15) on this occasion. I was happy to go for the smaller dishes and I ate far too much, as is often the case when faced with a menu packed with tapas-sized versions of old favourites.
A memorable dish of perfectly cooked, spankingly fresh scallops arrived on a pillow of sweet, earthy beetroot purée delicately spiced with za’atar to give it a genuine taste of the Middle East. Two enormous shell-on roast king prawns arrived smoky, seared and encrusted with salt and pepper, their oily juices creating a delicious sauce that demanded to be soaked up by chunks of good bread slathered with creamy Abernethy butter.
Juicy pickled herrings coupled with a herby potato salad was a light and piquant dish, as was warm octopus salad dressed with lemon juice and fiery harissa. A cheese course of perfectly ripe Wigmore topped with a slice of oozing honeycomb and served with a cluster of sweet, ice-cold Muscat grapes was followed by two scoops of fantastic homemade ice cream – a fruity rhubarb ripple and a boozy rum and raisin.
As somebody who reviews several restaurants every week, I rarely get chance to return to the places I enjoy most – but this was the fifth time I’ve been to the new-look Bell’s Diner & Bar Rooms in as many months. I think that says it all, really.
✱ Bell’s Diner & Bar rooms, 1-3 York road, Montpelier, Bristol BS6 5QB; 0117 924 0357; www.bellsdiner.com