What did Bristol’s restaurants and Bristol’s football teams used to have in common? Answer: There weren’t many great ones.
As someone who loves food and who grew up so close to Ashton Gate that I became a default City fan, I say this only with joking affection. But when I used to tell people where I was from, it seemed like they’d always bloody comment, “for a city that size, why aren’t there more good restaurants?” (I won’t mention what they’d say about the football teams for fear of angering swathes of potential diners.)
It’s true. There were the wilderness years, when great restaurants in Bristol were thin on the ground, and when my brother (a budding chef) and I (his willing accomplice) took it upon ourselves to change that all around, opening firstly a pizza restaurant, and latterly a more fine dining affair where our signature dish was a starter of half a grapefruit with a glacé cherry on top.
There’s only so much pepperoni you can studiously colour in and cut out of card though, and – at nine and seven years old – I’m afraid to say that we didn’t quite take the Bristol food scene by storm. Other Bristol chefs and restaurateurs most certainly did though and while it may be fair to say that there weren’t dozens of great Bristol restaurants in the nineties, there were a handful of outstanding ones.
Daniel Galmiche – who held a Michelin star at Harveys in the mid-nineties – tweeted us recently to say he still thought fondly of Bristol and I was totally star struck, even via the medium of twitter. He was one of the pioneers, shaping the city’s food scene. Just like Martin Blunos, who earned himself two Michelin stars at Lettonie around about the same time.
And then there was Markwicks. I’ve had a fair few meals out in my life. One that I will (hopefully) never forget was at this eponymous basement restaurant on Corn Street nearly two decades ago. It was rich and glorious, and so inspiring that my brother and I cooked up a plan to open a family restaurant – just like Stephen and Judy Markwick – with our dad as sommelier and mum as restaurant manager, regardless of the fact our parents had no desire to work in the restaurant industry! Needless to say, that didn’t happen.
Not long after Elliott and I opened BOX-E, the Markwicks came in for lunch and Stephen mentioned then that he didn’t envy us, running a restaurant in Bristol now, with so much competition on our doorstep. I can, of course, see his point.
Today, you mention Bristol and people instantly talk of the ‘food scene.’ We are just another restaurant in a city now bursting full of great ones; all vying for diners. But competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Competition pushes you to try harder; be better; raise the standard. And a greater number of restaurants just whets people’s appetite for eating out.
When we were doing the fit out for BOX-E, Casamia head chef Peter Sanchez came round to take a look. He was excited for us and excited that we were just round the corner from his restaurant. Far from being worried that we would steal his customers, he thought that collectively we’d generate more trade.
When there’s boom though, there’s often bust. It’s sad and unsettling hearing about restaurant closures. It reminds us of the fragility of the industry and it’s inevitable that questions start flying around about how many is too many when it comes to restaurants and whether we have reached saturation point yet.
(I hesitate writing this as it’s a bit like writing your own obituary. If we ever go bust there’s a paragraph right there waiting to be cut and pasted into a story about our closure!)
The answer to the question of whether Bristol now has too many restaurants is the same answer to the “do you know what you’re doing?” question my dad asked when we got serious about opening our own restaurant. Yes! And NO! And, only time will tell.
But, in the meantime, let’s celebrate having a vibrant and varied food scene, chock full of independents. There is certainly no danger now of people questioning when Bristol will have some decent places to eat. We have them! In spades. And our football teams didn’t end the season on too shabby a note either.
Tessa Lidstone is a mum of two girls; an uncontrollable liker of Bristol docks photos on Instagram; and not the chef at BOX-E.