Over the past three months living in Bristol, I have been quickly acquainting myself with the city's dining scene. It is fair to say that I have been bowled over, not only by the number and variety of options available, but by the quality of cooking on offer in some of the places we have visited. Bristol seems to be attracting some fantastic chefs who have done their time working with the big names in London and are now moving West to open their own restaurants.
As well as local favourites like The Ox, Bravas, Bells Diner, and No Man's Grace, Bristol boasts Wallfish (run by ex-Duck Soup and Le Cafe Anglais folk), Birch (ex-St John), Adelina Yard (ex- Odettes and Galvin La Chapelle) and Bulrush (ex-Fera at Claridges). That's some serious training on the pans.
For fans of the full tasting menu experience, there is currently terrific value to found at some of these restaurants. Adelina Yard's 8 course taster is just £42 compared to £70 at Galvin La Chapelle. Bulrush offer 9 courses for £45 compared to the £110 menu at Fera at Claridges. A site in Mayfair or the Square Mile is bound to carry higher overheads than Cotham or Welsh Back and Simon Rogan's name will always carry a premium, but I would argue that when it comes to what sits on the plate, the food in the Bristol restaurants is equally as inventive and well-presented. Of course the current pricing reflects their new arrival on the scene and the absence of Michelin stars , but I'm confident that it won't belong before Adelina and Bulrush get the nod.
At the other end of the dining scene sits Za Za Bazaar, reputed to be the biggest restaurant in the country. Located on the harbour, this megaspace can seat 700 at a time. It is an-all-you-can-eat world food buffet restaurant with cooking stations that serve American, British, Asian, Mexican, Indian and other global favourites to anyone with a large appetite. It is big, loud and chaotic, and the food is cheap, An adult lunch is £8.99, a child's costs £4.49. I was curious.
At Za Za Bazaar the eating is frenzied, like a pride of lions feeding on a newly grounded antelope. Diners converge on the cooking stations like seagulls flocking around fallen chips on Brighton Pier. I half expected to come across David Attenborough and a film crew hiding under the Pad Thai, observing this modern phenomenon of excessive eating. It seemed to be hugely popular for large parties, students (obviously) and children unsurprisingly drawn to the bottomless refills of Pepsi and the self-serve Mr Whippy style ice-cream machine. Rather snobbishly I expected to hate it, but I didn't. I took my daughter for lunch after she had spent three hours playing tennis and I had been to the gym. We were both ravenously hungry.
It is impossible not to overeat in an all-you-can-eat restaurant. There is something about getting the most for your money that drives people to gorge themselves to the point of having to be rolled out of the restaurant like a spherical Violet Beauregard in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. In the end, with one eye on my gym routine, I had a protein overload. For the most part I ditched the carbs and went for the world's greatest hits of chicken, all on one plate. Tikka, Piri Piri, Buffalo Wings, Sweet and Sour...you name it, I ate it. Ignoring the fact that there was no way these chickens had led happy free-range lives, it was all pretty edible, if not amazing.
Za Za Bazaar is a crowd-pleasing restaurant for the people, and judging by its popularity and constant turnover of customers, it is what the people want. Adelina Yard and Bulrush are both cutting-edge foodie destinations serving menus worthy of a Michelin star, but outside of weekends these small restaurants struggle to fill their tables. So who will win the battle for survival in what is an extremely competitive industry? I hope all of them, but only time will tell.