“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness has been produced by a good tavern”. – Dr Samuel Johnson
It’s been happening for a while now. A steady trickle of emails drifting into my inbox announcing the closure of independent restaurants. Despite the fact that the hospitality industry has weathered the initial effects of Brexit it seems the restaurant industry could face turbulent times ahead.
The most recent victim of this downturn appears to be the Historical Dining Rooms in Bristol. It is a restaurant whose ethos is close to my heart. Leigh Pascoe and his team provided top-notch food inspired by historical recipes. My first visit there was in October 2015, shortly after the restaurant had opened. I was impressed. Not only by the quality of the food (both in terms of taste and presentation) but by the sheer level of research behind the menu. I was delighted to be invited to return to sample their afternoon tea menu, and for what would turn out to be a swan song performance.
Afternoon tea is a curiously British tradition, (which I explored recently in a blog post for English Heritage). The custom originated in 1840 when the Duchess of Bedford decided to take to take a pot of tea and a light snack to alleviate her hunger before dinner. Since then it has become a popular treat featuring dainty sandwiches, petite fancy cakes and the ubiquitous scones with cream and jam. If I’m honest, it’s not my favourite past time but then I knew afternoon tea at the Historical Dining Rooms would be like no other I have ever had.
For starters, there was a greater emphasis on the savoury elements than the sweet which immediately impressed. A mini Eccles cake with Goosnargh cheese nestled in a box of hay kicked off the proceedings. A good combo of sweet and savoury flavours although perhaps a bit too much pastry in the Eccles cake. At the Historical Dining Rooms is it is not only the food that is important but how it is presented. Although the food may be rooted in tradition they always seem to find a creative way to present it. So it was no great surprise when a mini chest of drawers was placed on my table.
Feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland I was eager to open the drawers to discover what they contained. The first revealed mock crab (a pleasing mixture of cheese, breadcrumbs and tomato served in a crab shell). There was nothing ‘artificial’ about the contents of the next drawer. This held a squirrel pie and veal toast (poached veal moussed encased in a crispy bread ‘jacket’). I enquired about the squirrel, was it real? Indeed it was although it had been sourced from local woodland rather than the neighbouring park. Despite my initial reservations about eating vermin the contents of this open pie had a rich gamey flavour and were deliciously tender. This was probably one of the highlights of the afternoon tea. Of course there were sandwiches too which included a aromatic Victorian club of curried mutton. I particularly liked the addition of a toasted piece of bread in the centre of the sandwich which acted as a divider between the curried mutton and the apple and tomato chutney.
Palate cleansers are something of a rarity in today’s restaurants. In the past these have commonly been a small serving of sorbet. The Historical Dining Room’s answer to this was to provide a small bottle of home made Indian tonic water (complete with a handwritten label adding to the Carroll-esq ambiance) to be poured over a cucumber ice cube and a few juniper berries. Not only ingenious but superbly refreshing. The only thing missing was the gin.
‘Sweet Poisons’, borrowing Eliza Acton’s term for cakes, rounded off the experience. An aerated Victoria sponge, which did indeed look like a sponge you would bathe with rather than a conventional cake, was peculiar in texture but good to eat. The treacle posset, a sweet dark concoction topped with a thin veil of cream and adorned with miniature beetroot and spinach meringues, was a picture to look at a definitely fitted the title of ‘sweet poison’. But my favourite ‘cakes’ were the citrus scented Vienna breads served with a slightly tart loganberry jam. Evidently the Victorians weren’t as partial to scones as we are today preferring these slightly sweetened breads that look like mini croissants. A perfect alternative to the much over rated scone, in my opinion.
As I was leaving the manager informed me this was the restaurant’s last afternoon tea service. It was incredibly sad news to hear particularly after such a wonderfully innovative dining experience. The Star and Dove Tavern below the Historical Dining Rooms will continue to serve food hopefully heavily influenced by Leigh’s creative flare. But the Historical Dining Rooms themselves are no more.
If only it were as simple as clapping your hands like Peter Pan and saying “I believe in independent restaurants”. I often hear people exclaim they want to try something different. Something far removed from the innumerable High Street restaurants that churn out the same mundane food. And yet it has always been a struggle for independents to survive in this competitive industry. Is there really a place for vision in the restaurant industry or are consumers doomed to be bound to these uninspiring chain restaurants? I do hope so and I pray that Leigh’s vision to broaden our horizons and showcase Britain’s unique, historical cuisine rises again.