Eating out in London is tough. Exciting, but tough. A complex procedure that involves co-ordinating diaries with friends, working out what everyone can afford and picking somewhere with the lowest risk of queues. Not to mention keeping up with the latest trends.
Yet, London is not the be-all and end-all of British gastronomy. Just an hour-and-a-half’s train ride away, a quiet gastronomic explosion is taking place in Bristol where 31 new eateries opened in 2016 and 64 are expected to open this year.
On a packed Saturday night in No Man’s Grace, a restaurant typical of Bristol’s foodie growth spurt, light from the exposed bulbs is low and the Beach Boys jingle on the stereo. The vibe is friendly neighbourhood, the food is exquisite.
Serving us a starter of sea bass and fennel cured in ‘Psychopomp’ gin, from a distillery around the corner, chef-owner John Watson explains the draw. ‘You need half a million to have a restaurant in London where as I started this place with £20,000,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of young chefs here and the investment isn’t as big so they can afford to experiment.’
But heading to Bristol is not just about finding a cheaper option. In 2005 Tom Hunt opened Poco in an old corner shop on one of the city’s hippest, and hippiest, streets. He has also run a restaurant in London. For him, Bristol wins because it prioritises enjoyment over show: ‘London is always about the new opening whereas Bristol is about getting your knees under the table with friends.’
Even Casamia, Bristol’s most touted Michelin-starred restaurant, is resolutely on the casual side of smart. Starched white tablecloths and set places have been ditched in favour of plain wooden tabletops, cutlery in hewn wooden holders and customers in open neck shirts. The restaurant’s self-taught chef patron Peter Sanchez-Iglesias has a list pinned in the kitchen titled ‘Sum up of Casamia’. At the top is written, ‘No dress code’. A little further down, ‘No rule cooking’.
‘I tell everybody to be themselves and to be relaxed,’ says Peter. ‘Bristol has a chilled, “do-your-own-thing” attitude and it’s begun to be picked up by the rest of the country.’
Peter, who opened two – more affordable – offshoots of Casamia last year, says that five years ago not even a quarter of the quality restaurants that Bristol now has existed. ‘If someone had said this boom would happen, I would never have believed it.’
The ‘chilled’ attitude translates to the menus, too. However refined the food at Casamia, it is grounded by an earthy dedication to the seasonal and local. A fillet of brown trout, deconstructed and smartly seared with charcoal, comes from a fish farm with a West Country postcode and is served in earthenware bowls. A transformative sabayon is infused with sparkling wine from a vineyard not 50 minutes from the restaurant’s door. The after dinner fudge is mushroom flavoured.
Chefs who have made the move from London are no different. At Bulrush – opened in 2015 by George Livesey, previously of Roux, L’Enclume and St John – the remarkably affordable tasting menu (£48) contains ingredients including mutton and cheddar. At Birch, a tiny 24-cover eatery started the same year by Sam Leach, again a graduate of St John, an ever-changing menu depends on what’s found in the restaurant’s allotment.
Even more Bristolian is Sky Kong Kong, an eccentric front room of a place, tucked behind the city’s bus station. There, chef Wizzy (who earned her stripes at Nobu and Hakkasan) serves up two-course feasts made from whatever she can get at the market that day, all for £12.50.
‘If you lived in Bristol, you would probably be less surprised by the current food explosion,’ says Connie Coombes, who co-ran Rocinantes, a legendary tapas bar that dominated the Bristol food scene in the late 1980s and 90s. ‘It has always been a place that attracts independently minded people and free thinkers.’
Back at No Man’s Grace, we mull Bristol’s attraction over a plump prune and Armagnac soufflé. ‘I think eating out, whether it’s a date, family meal, or catching up with some mates is so important,’ says John Watson. ‘Here people without a massive disposable income can do just that.’
Bigger names are catching on too. Ottolenghi staged a pop-up in Bristol in April while among 2016’s openings were the first outposts of The Ivy and Polpo outside London.
Asked which city he would prefer to eat in these days Peter Sanchez-Iglesias doesn’t miss a beat: ‘Bristol all day long,’ he says. Go west now and you might just beat the queues.