BristolWords Fiona Beckett
Photography Matt Munro
Why would you visit Bristol when you could spend time in Bath instead? If you’ve been to neither, it’s something you might well wonder. With its mellow golden stone Bath epitomises gracious Regency living. Bristol, the UK’s eighth largest city, is bigger, less beautiful, and was battered during the war, but it’s also alive, vibrant, creative – the beating heart of the West Country. Those of us who live here wouldn’t be anywhere else.
There has been a town on the site since medieval times, when a settlement called Brigstow was established between the rivers Avon and Frome. It’s always been an important port (one reason for the bombing) with a harbour right in the city centre. It was the bustling hub of trade with the New World, including the wine trade and, ignobly, the slave trade. For centuries Bristol played a central part in importing wines and spirits from France, Spain and Portugal. Heard of Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry? Of course you have.
Bristol has a rebellious, independent streak, too. It’s no coincidence Banksy comes from Bristol, or that the raffish Keith Floyd made his name here. “I remember him sitting at our table in one of his restaurants and cheerfully drinking our wine, then going back into the kitchen,” recalls my husband, who has been regularly lured back to Bristol since he was a student in the 60s. “We used to call it lotus land because no-one ever wanted to leave.”
In food terms there aren’t that many upmarket restaurants. Bristolians don’t do fine dining (some uncharitably say we’re too mean, but we prefer to see it as more down to earth). You can eat a top-class meal – if you want to splash the cash – but it’s cafe life and casual eating that dominates the Bristol food scene. You may wonder if the locals eat between breakfast and dinner, but breakfast is probably eaten so late by the large student population that it counts as lunch.
The best place to start your gastronomic adventures is at the eclectic collection of food stands in St Nicholas Market, affectionately known as St Nick’s. Kick things off with a custard tart at Portuguese Taste: with its crisp flaky pastry, creamy saffron-yellow filling
and sweet caramelised edge, you won’t find better in Lisbon.
Next door there’s a Moroccan cafe where, if there’s room, you can eat great steaming plates of couscous Arab-style in the colourful, curtained interior. Or try the deliciously airy felafel at the locals’ latest favourite, Eat a Pitta (even fellow stallholders queue for this). There’s an outlet of Bristol’s famous pie company, Pieminister, too, in a retro ‘caff’ setting with laminate-topped tables. Most seemed to be opting for ‘The Mothership’, a towering plate of hot pie, mash, mushy peas and gravy. You may need to stride up one of Bristol’s numerous hills after that.
Then there are legendary Trethowan’s Dairy toasties. Like no other toastie you’ve tasted, these are slices of Hobbs House Bakery’s shepherds loaf topped with lavish amounts of onion, leek and Keen’s cheddar, flipped on an open grill until the cheese oozes out. They mostly sell them next to their tiny cheese shop but on Wednesdays they’re at the weekly farmers’ market, where you’ll also find Vincent Castellano’s tasty charcuterie. (French charcuterie, made by an Italian. Very Bristol.)
Don’t neglect St Nick’s main building either, the Exchange Hall, which houses an eclectic collection of stalls (including an improbably large number selling hats) and, by the Corn Street entrance, Dr Burnorium’s Hot Sauce Emporium, where you can blow your head off with any number of eyewatering condiments.
From St Nick’s it’s a short walk to the Welsh Back, the area of the harbour that used to land Welsh slate and coal. Walk the cobbled streets along the waterfront, maybe stopping off for a homemade hazelnut ice cream at The Spyglass or a pint at The Apple, a floating barge that carries 40 different ciders and perries. (Don’t call it pear cider, please – the locals would shoot you for ordering that.)
This is where to get an idea of Bristol’s former grandeur and to check the main tourist attractions – the Arnolfini gallery, the M Shed, a new museum which catalogues the city’s often murky past, and the SS Great Britain, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
From there you can see the brightly coloured houses climbing up to Clifton, Bristol’s poshest area, which is home to the famous Suspension Bridge (another Brunel creation), the curving white arc of Royal York Crescent (reputed to be
the longest in Europe) and the smart boutiques, pubs and restaurants of Clifton Village, Bristol’s answer to Hampstead. There you might want to make time for a cup of amber oolong and a crumbly slice of freshly made carrot and pistachio cake from modern tearoom, Lahloo Pantry.
By the way, if you want to get up to Clifton, or to Durdham Downs, the big open space beyond, you could take a bus (the number 8 from the centre) – not only because of the hills but for the uniquely Bristol experience of hearing passengers say “Cheers, drive” (thanks, driver) as they get off.
Oddly, the village itself doesn’t house Bristol’s best restaurants. For that you’ll have to walk down the hill to Lido, where you can dine watching dogged swimmers ploughing up and down the open-air pool and nipping in and out of brightly striped changing huts. The chef in charge is the ebullient Freddy Bird, who used to work at London’s Moro, and it has a Middle-Eastern inspired menu and specialities such as seared scallops and hake, cooked in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven.
Over the road in Cotham you’ll find Flinty Red, a small, busy wine bar run by two local chefs, Matthew Williamson and Claire Thomson, and the owners of neighbouring Corks wine merchant. The menu offers much more than your typical wine bar fodder though, with clever small plates such as the sticky, tender ox cheek with a surprising accompaniment of pickled carrots, spring onion and mint, and wild greens and ricotta ravioli (the pasta here is always terrific).
If you’re in Bristol between Thursday and Saturday you could take in a meal at Culinaria, the modest bistro run by Stephen Markwick. He’s one of the last chefs to have worked with the late, great George Perry-Smith, a disciple of Elizabeth David and one of the icons of West Country cooking. Hope that the day’s menu includes Markwick’s salmon in pastry with currants and ginger, which oozes sweet, spicy, buttery juices, or – unusual as it might sound – his cucumber fritters, the perfect English summer starter.
Finally, no visit to Bristol would be complete without a visit to ‘The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft’, as it’s known locally, the radical area to the north of the old city centre where residents rioted a couple of years ago against the imposition of a Tesco.
This is where you’ll find Bristol at its bold, confident, multicultural best, emblazoned with vividly coloured graffiti. Chris Wicks’ boho Bell’s Diner offers a fine tasting menu, alongside one of the city’s best secret supper clubs, Montpelier Basement, and the warm welcome and hearty Jamaican home cooking of Rice & Things (see them on page 160 of Jamie’s Great Britain). The tiny Runcible Spoon, easily overlooked up a side street, is an all-day cafe run by five young chefs as a “workers’ owned cooperative”. They bake their own bread, source their ingredients locally, and charge the locals a pittance for exemplary modern British food that would cost at least half as much anywhere else. That’s Bristol for you.
Bell’s Diner 1–3 York Road, BS6 5QB; 0117 924 0357. Not a diner at all but an upmarket restaurant in the edgy Montpelier district where you can eat some of the city’s best food. Ask to be in the beautiful front dining room.
Culinaria 1 Chandos Road, BS6 6PG; 0117 973 7999. This modest Redland bistro run by husband-and-wife team Stephen and Judy Markwick is a Bristol institution. Classic modern British cooking – chef Simon Hopkinson is a fan.
The Ethicurean Barley Wood Walled Garden, Wrington, BS40 5SA; 0193 486 3713. It’s well worth the 20 to 30-minute drive to visit this award-winning cafe in the beautiful Barley Wood Walled Garden. Major veg patch envy.
Flinty Red 34 Cotham Hill, BS6 6LA; 0117 923 8755. Bustling wine bar that also serves mainly Italian-inspired small plates. Don’t miss the deep-fried panisse (chickpea pancakes).
40 Alfred Place 40 Alfred Place, BS2 8HD; 0117 944 3060. Popular with the locals for pop-up events – Keith Floyd’s son Patrick is often found in the kitchen. Check the website before you go to see what’s on.
Jamie’s Italian 87–89 Park Street, BS1 5PW; 0117 370 0265. Offers all your menu favourites, with room for parties of up to 60 in a beautiful listed building.
Lahloo Pantry 12 King’s Road, BS8 4AB; 0117 329 2029. Self-styled modern tearoom in Clifton run by local tea company Lahloo. A mecca for tea and cake fans.
Lido Oakfield Place, BS8 2BJ; 0117 933 9533. This converted Victorian lido has one of the best locations in Bristol, overlooking an open-air swimming pool. There’s also a spa if you fancy being pampered before you eat, either in the restaurant or – all day – in the poolside bar.
Montpelier Basement Address confirmed on booking; firstname.lastname@example.org. Monthly supper club run by local cafe owner Elly and food blogger Dan of Essex Eating. Five-course dinner for £30 with veggie options. BYO.
Pieminister Several locations across Bristol. Now available all over the UK, but Bristol born and bred. Favourites are the Chicken of Aragon (chicken and tarragon) and the Moo and Blue (steak and stilton) pies.
Rice & Things 120 Cheltenham Road, BS6 5RW; 0117 924 4832. One of the best places to go for Jamaican home cooking, especially for curry goat. Chef Branatic Neufville featured in Jamie’s recent TV series and book, Jamie’s Great Britain.
Riverstation The Grove, BS1 4RB; 0117 914 4434. Relaxed modern restaurant with great harbour views. The four tapas-style plates for £10 deal in the bar is a bargain. Kids eat free with some menus, too.
Rockfish Grill 128 Whiteladies Road, BS8 2RS, 0117 973 7384. Bristol outpost of Mitch Tonks’ seafood restaurant empire, serving super-fresh fish from the Devon coast, much of it cooked on a charcoal grill. The crab is fab.
The Runcible Spoon 3 Nine Tree Hill, BS1 3SB; 0117 329 7645. A typically Bristol enterprise – an eco-friendly workers’ cooperative in Stokes Croft using 100-per-cent British produce. Good for weekend breakfasts. Fantastic value.
Souk Kitchen 277 North Street, BS3 1JP; 0117 966 6880. A great spot for brunch after a visit to the weekly Tobacco Factory food and crafts market in Bedminster. The Souk breakfast tagine (Turkish beans, spiced lamb patties, spicy sausage, feta and eggs) is a winner.
Source Food Hall and Cafe 1–3 Exchange Avenue, BS1 1JW; 0117 927 2998. A good choice for breakfast, lunch or dinner (the latter from Thursday–Saturday only), this relaxed cafe in St Nicholas Market turns out brilliant food from the seasonal produce it sells in its food shop.
Spyglass Welsh Back, BS1 4SB; 0117 927 7050. Large, family-friendly restaurant along the harbourside that has recently been given a smart makeover. Think free-range rotisserie chicken, sustainable fish and homemade ice creams.
Tart Cafe 16 The Promenade, Gloucester Road, BS7 8AE; 0117 924 7628. Bristol’s home-from-home for yummy mummies. Lovely warm, wobbly quiches and cakes.
Thali Cafe Branches in Easton, Clifton & Montpelier. Clever, jazzily-designed Indian cafes serving fresh-tasting thalis. Particularly good for veggies and vegans. The Bombay potato chips are to die for.
The Apple Welsh Back, BS1 4SB; 0117 925 3500. Pray for a sunny day so you can sit on the quay beside this floating cider barge that carries around 40 artisanal ciders and perries.
Beerd 157–159 St Michael’s Hill, BS2 8DB, 0117 974 3567. Great new craft beer and pizza joint that attracts a lively crowd of students and medics from the nearby Bristol Royal Infirmary. They don’t take themselves too seriously – the staff wear T-shirts printed with “Beerdy Weirdy”.
Bristol Beer Factory. Bristol’s best microbrewery, specialising in stouts – stocked all over the city and elsewhere (see website for details). Their milk stout is genius, as is the Hefe German-style wheat beer.
Bristol Cider Shop 7 Christmas Steps, BS1 5BS; 0117 382 1679. Another must-visit for cider-lovers, this tiny shop is run out of the front room of a house on the historic Christmas Steps by – believe it or not – a guy called Peter Snowman. Try Janet’s Jungle Juice.
Hausbar 52 Upper Belgrave Road, BS8 2XP; 0117 946 6081. Dark, glam, speakeasy-style bar beneath the Rajpoot curry house at the top of the city near Durdham Downs. Mixes up classic cocktails.
Milk Thistle Quay Head House, Colston Avenue, BS1 1EB; 0117 929 4429. Stunning bar in a converted Grade II-listed building in the centre of town. No sign (it’s next to the White Lion pub, just ring), and open till 3am at weekends.
The Portcullis 3 Wellington Terrace, BS8 4LE; 0117 908 5536. Tiny real ale pub near the Clifton Suspension Bridge that looks as if it got stuck in the 50s. Frequent beer and cider festivals. Is CAMRA listed and has well-kept beers.
The Rummer All Saints Lane, BS1 1JH; 0117 929 0111. Atmospheric old city centre bar on the edge of St Nicholas Market with more than 400 spirits, including – appropriately enough – a fine collection of rums.
SEE & DO
Arnolfini 16 Narrow Quay, BS1 4QA; 0117 917 2300. Cutting-edge exhibition and performance arts space on the harbourside. Great bookshop and Italian-style cafe with open-air seating.
Bristol Balloons 0117 947 1030. Ballooning is big in Bristol, culminating in the annual Bristol International Balloon Fiesta (9–12 August 2012). Easily the best way to get a bird’s-eye view over the city.
Clifton Suspension Bridge. The view in Bristol. Completed in 1864, this 414m-long bridge spans the Avon Gorge.
SS Great Britain Great Western Dockyard, BS1 6TY; 0117 926 0680. The first great ocean liner. Experience what it felt like to sail in Victorian times.
M Shed Princes Wharf, Wapping Road, BS1 4RN; 0117 352 6600. Bristol’s newly opened, fascinating, free museum on the historic dockside charts its glorious (and inglorious) history, including its involvement in the slave trade.
St Werburghs City Farm Watercress Road, BS2 9YJ; 0117 942 8241. A working farm with sheep, pigs, goats and chickens – great for kids. There’s a really good cafe there, too. Free entry but donations welcome.
St Nicholas Market 58 Corn Street, BS1 1JG. Covered market in 18th-century buidings in the old city centre. Farmers’ market every Wednesday.
Bristol Sweet Mart 80 St Marks Road, BS5 6JH; 0117 951 2257. This sprawling emporium has every exotic ingredient you can think of plus brightly coloured barfi and other Indian sweets.
Guild 68–70 Park Street, BS1 5JY; 0117 926 5548. Long-established arts and crafts shop that sells some beautiful kitchen- and tableware.
Otomi 7 Clifton Arcade, Boyces Avenue, BS8 4AA; 0117 973 2906. An authentic Mexican food and crafts shop right in the centre of Clifton.
Papadeli 84 Alma Rd, BS8 2DJ; 0117 973 6569. Deli and ‘treat shop’ with all sorts of edible gifts. And a cafe – practically everywhere in Bristol has a cafe.