Eating out in Bristol these days can sound like something out of a Dr Seuss book. Would you like to dine on a boat, in a shipping container or in a yurt?
We’ve got more choice than ever before, and between this and the recent swathe of well-known food businesses closing (RIP Bagel Boy, you could have at least let me savour one last Verde Boy), it’s not surprising that questions are being asked about whether we’re approaching restaurant saturation point in Bristol.
The thing is, the churn of businesses in the city is no new thing, and the reasons for closures are far from limited to the impact of increased competition. Maybe it’s just the case that we’re now just more aware of them due to added publicity on social media.
I’m not underestimating the fact that some chefs and business owners are worried. Increased competition is always a cause for concern. And now that more restaurants are setting out their stall on social media and via PRs, there’s more noise to contend with than ever before. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that many recent closures have been in historically difficult locations, or retiring business owners, or a change in business focus.
One statement from Bellita co-owner Sam Sohn-Rethel in the recent Bristol24/7 story, Is Bristol’s restaurant bubble about to burst?, that did snag my attention though was the statement that there are only “half a dozen” very good places to eat in the city. I’m aware how subjective the experience of food and dining out is, but I’ll chip in a few thoughts of my own.
Inventiveness/uniqueness is not the only benchmark for quality. We’re ridiculously lucky to not only have stalwarts such as Casamia and Wilks creating some of the most interesting menus in the country on our doorstep, but recently more neighbourhood places have been joining their ranks, with Wilson’s, Birch, Bulrush, Adelina Yard and Box-E all receiving high praise from diners and reviewers alike, and bringing this sort of standard to people with a tighter budget. *raises hand*
You should definitely set aside some cash and visit each of these places. Not only is the food excellent, but the teams behind them are wonderful.
However, not everyone wants their dinners out to be in this style. Sometimes you want a messy hangover burger, cocktails and tapas with mates, or a romantic bucket of fried chicken with your partner (just me?). The mark of a successful food a scene shouldn’t just be the amount of awards it wins, but how diverse it is – not only in terms of cuisines, but also price points and levels of sophistication.
As much as I understand that chefs are going to be far harder to please when it comes to dining out, it’s also important to remember that the cafes and restaurants of the city serve a very mixed population of almost half a million, from students to families to young professionals. All of those will have varying ideas of what ‘great’ is as well as different needs (someone pointed out recently that often chains tend to have a better offering for small children and larger groups), and a good thing too! There’s more that could and should be done for education on the importance of sourcing and sustainability but that’s something for a whole other article.
What I’m getting at is that for every Birch doing incredible dishes served straight from their allotment a few miles away, there is also a Sky Kong Kong doing the same thing in a Korean style, or the Bank Tavern knocking out a brilliant menu which is locally sourced and seasonal, or Asado making burgers out of some of the best meat you can get. To try and boil Bristol’s offering down to a only a few ‘very good’ restaurants means you ignore some of the tastiest places in the city!
Ultimately, we all have our favoured places to eat, and whether that’s limited to two places or 20, it’s important to realise that Bristol’s restaurant scene isn’t imploding any time soon. New places will always get a burst of hype as they always have done, but that dies down and people stay loyal to what actually has substance behind the hype (Bar Buvette and Pasta Loco are good examples).
Bristolians like to eat, talk about it and support their local business, and long may that continue.