If Bristol were part of the family, she would be the aunt in the turquoise tights with the wild greying hair. Well travelled, but perhaps once a financial type. Bristol likes to shout about being left-of-field (sofas in the streets on Sundays, home of the BBC TV series Skins, festivals every weekend in the summer) but it was a work-a-day port, and its sweeping Georgian streets were built on proceeds on the British leg of the 18th-century slave trade.
She would, above all, have a robust palette. The type of person who keeps real butter in the fridge and isn’t afraid to stick her finger in the (homemade) jam to try it.
Eating out in Bristol you are in the hands of talented locals. Take Josh Eggleton, chef-owner of the Michelin-starred Pony & Trap pub just outside the city who was, incidentally, in the same school class as Peter Sanchez-Iglesias, founder of the equally Michelin-rated Casa Mia.
The city has also lured Londoners, tired of incessantly hiking rents and a more fickle dining population. Bulrush – often rated one of the city’s best eateries – is the creation of George Livesey (alumnus of Roux, L’Enclume and St John), while fellow St John graduate Sam Leach, moved to Bristol to open Birch, a deliciously tiny find south of the Avon river.
For the outsider, a town where unassuming doorways hide gastronomic gems can seem more smorgasbord than picnic. Here to give you some bearings are eight of Bristol’s best restaurants, according to locals, chefs and the experience of this not-long-left resident.
Wilson’s was spectacularly under-rated until Bristol chefs started to chat and London’s reviewers discovered it at the end of last year. It is worthy of the notice. Mostly because it does what most of the restaurants on this list do well: cook good fresh ingredients and cook them in unpretentious but absorbing ways. The food, be it bramley apples, roe buck, mushrooms, or cod on the plate, hum with flavour. And for those who like organic or biodynamic wines it has a list to match the menu. If they are serving the tagliatelle with truffles, it’s a treat you mustn’t miss.
SkyKongKong brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘hidden gem’. In a desolate part of town behind the bus station is what looks like an eccentric kitchen supplies shop. Inside chef Wizzy, previously of Hakkasan in London, magics produce from her garden and her pick of the day’s market produce into meticulous Korean-style dishes. There’s no menu and only two sittings per evening along the hardy communal table. Two courses come to £12.50 and your own wine is welcome. Booking is required.
There’s controversy over who takes top spot for Bristol’s best pizza. Bosco – worth a look for the ferocity of its pizza oven and for a succulent sample of its porchetta – is another worthy contender. Pizzarova you may recognise from the days when it was a back-of-the-Land Rover set up that travelled to festivals. Now it has three homes in Bristol. The menu is sourdough pizza either made their way – a monthly special – or your way – whatever toppings you want on a Margherita. Respect to the base: it is made from a sourdough culture that is 71 years old.
Touted to be the next Michelin star winner in the city, Bulrush seemed criminally underpriced when it first opened – and the price has only gone up by about £5 (to £50 for an eight course tasting menu) since. Its whitewashed brickwork in an old grocery makes an appealingly simple setting for fragrant vegetable dishes or fish spotted with a soothing whey sauce. Chef George Livesey lives up to the quality of his CV (see above) but not the starched whites. The food is adventurous but in a way that celebrates the West Country’s basket of ingredients – not overpower them.
Bristol has enjoyed something of a boom on the tapas scene (new entrant Pintxo on Whiteladies Road is very good too), but Bravas remains a stalwart. Sitting up at the bar is most fun to fully take advantage – as all good tapas dinners should – of the free flow of morsel after morsel. It’s hard to know where to start. The headline patatas bravas are paperbag crispy and riddled with herbs, the West Country nod with the chorizo in cider is fun, and I would eat all of the fish dishes twice. Booking is advisable or you will be in for a wait.
It may be the most chi-chi of Bristol’s offerings but even then, Casa Mia is remarkably relaxed. More shirtsleeves than ties. And the food lives by chef Peter Sanchez-Iglesias’ somewhat Fight Club rule of ‘no rule cooking’. There’s theatre – trout seared in front of you, fudge served on small rocks – but it is not an overpowering feat of culinary showiness, and each tidbit is a gem. Front-of-house stage direction from Peter’s 73-year-old father Paco only adds to the magic.
In the rarefied backstreets of Clifton sits its old Victorian lido, where you can swim for a princely sum or just enjoy watching the heads bob back and forth from the comfort of their restaurant. The best deal is to go for the early evening or lunchtime set menu where three courses will set you back an astonishing £20 – astonishing for the value, not the expense. Head chef Freddy Bird cooks with a Mediterranean lilt to the cooking, which brings a little sunshine to not unusually rainy West Country days.
Sunday Times critic Marina O’Loughlin (once a student of Bristol University, though that in the days before Birch existed) touts this neighbourhood bistro as her favourite Bristolian haunt. Birch grew up out of supper clubs and still has the inclusive feel thanks to its tiny 24-cover premises. While the pedigree of the chefs is London, the food is resolutely local. It ranges from roast partridge to Cornish hake, all served on small plates to share. If you’re visiting on a Sunday they now do, arguably, one of Bristol’s best roasts (for perhaps it’s second best, try The Grace on Gloucester Road).
And one more… Wapping Wharf
Bristol’s answer to London’s Box Park has similarities, in that it is made up of independent businesses in old containers – fitting for the more brutalist industrial landscape of the docks. But Wapping Wharf is more foodie and less party than its Shoreditch counterpart. Root comes highly recommended from a number of Bristolian chefs for its vegetable focussed small plates. Bertha’s does smash hit negroni’s (and pizza). And for a good dose of hipster coffee blending head to Little Victories.