I’ve been living on Harbourside for a year. Recently it was announced in the ‘papers that this is one of the best places to live in the UK, which would make it pretty good worldwide, in my book, especially this summer. I’m still not entirely sure I want to live anywhere since my Janet let me go, just a year ago.
Still, as I dodge the bemused tourists, phone zombies – available everywhere – jogger packs, (no, it’s because it’s flat, not because it’s interesting) kamikaze cyclists and tedious aquatic activities (frequently ending in fireworks during the summer), I have to admit that living on the old dock does have some charms.
Food is not generally one of those delights, although there are some exceptions. I haven’t counted the number of places to eat around the harbour, but in a year I have sampled them all, some several times. The nearest to where I live – Baltic Wharf housing estate – is the Cottage Inn. Between me and them is The Baltic Wharf Caravan Park, (those travellers get everywhere – fill in according to prejudice) which is busy all year round mainly with camper vans, and a welcome bulwark. The dingy yard is next door. So The Cottage has easy pickings, (tourists and sailors being known for their thirsty ways) which is more than you can say for the food they serve. Take the ‘Beer Battered Fish (not Cod you notice) n’ Chips. Fine if you enjoy batter and hate fish, you won’t be disappointed, other than with the ‘mushy peas’ which accompany the said batter and de-frosted chunky-style chips; although they are actually garden peas served in an enamel mug (tourists showed me a photo of said mug complete with rust) and stirred up with a fork, a bit.
The mash potato is a revelation, any old pots will do it seems whether they are suitable for mash or not, unadorned with herb, milk or butter, dropped onto the plate with all the care of an old-time boatman casting his slop pail into the aforementioned harbour.
Recently, feeling rather thirsty – it is the nearest by several feet – I stopped in for a libation and was informed by the landlord that I would, have to join the queue, over there, mate. Charm personified.
Moving on rapidly past the Harbour Master’s office one arrives at the ‘historic’ – it’s been there a while – Underfall Yard, a small working doc and associate cafe, which is licensed, luckily. Strange, over-sized sandwiches await the wanderer, which is good for the sea birds and pigeons I suppose. A few overpriced metres further on is the Nova Scotia, overlooking the Cumberland Basin locks, sluices and swing bridge. A working pub with a tourist input, the Nova Scotia boasts a chef who enjoys cooking, and a long-standing folk night, Mondays. Food is quite good, especially the cauliflower cheese and the excellent value sirloin steak. Avoid the veal, unless you have your good teeth in.
Before crossing the bridge and leaving Spike Island (an area of great historic significance and thousands of homes, an arts complex, restaurants, M Shed museum, water activities, steam train &c., kept hidden from many Bristolians, who invariably ask, “Where?”) I have to mention the Chef’s Table, which is wonderful place to eat but is a proper occasion, good for anniversaries and such, and not cheap. Unmissable for the gourmet.
The Pump House arrives just 50 metres on and directly facing the Nova Scotia across the lock, a little up-market and with really decent food. Can get a bit ‘Clifton’ but is good in mid-week. Cheescake to die for, and chefs who like cooking. The current landlord will talk about food if he gets a chance. Pity I have to walk so far to eat there. Save up and then enjoy.
Or, for a more run-of-the-weekday sort of place there is the Rose of Denmark. Stumble terrified across the three lanes of bridge traffic onto Humphry Davey way, (that’s the man who invented nitrous oxide, rubber balloons and the phrase, ‘die laughing’) then a short stagger to Hotwell Road (it seems to have been renamed by Google, should have an ‘s’, at least that’s how we say it) and in we go. Friendly by local standards, (no knives) pub food with some attention to detail and good value. Curry night on Wednesday, quite a few veggie dishes, good all-rounder. Quiet in the week, so I can read my book. Live music sometimes.
And gaze across the Cumberland Basin to Lockside, a surprisingly busy daytime eatery built into and under the Plimsoll Bridge slipway. Breakfasts of the ordinary sort.
For some reason I have ignored The Bear, Hotwells. Could be the warm welcoming atmosphere, it definitely isn’t the food. A local inn, for local people? (Well it’s a wise man knows his father, cousin, sister, aunt etc. as Shakespeare might well have said, especially if he had been drinking in The Bear). Surrounded on all sides by heavy traffic and the frequent siren scream of emergency vehicles heading into the South Bristol netherworld, it exudes charm of a type not usually encountered outside of novels, thank God. However it does enjoy redemption in the form of the Be-Bop Club, Friday night jazz, which seriously must be checked out. Hotwells slummers hangout.
Round to the Merchant’ Arms, a bar smaller than many micros, which has cheese and onion rolls and beer. Luckily I like cheese and onion, within limits. Clientele have interesting stories, often involving complex illegal activities which they are happy to regale you with, for an indefinite and still to be determined period of time. How we laughed as the long winter nights crawled by. One chap explained a scientific conundrum to me, as to how the speed of light is 180,000 miles an hour (Disc World, perhaps), which causes anomalies. Seemingly. Perhaps it is an effect of the tides, which are famously large in these parts. Although I’m not certain that the punters in this pub are aware that there are tides nearby, unless they are unfortunate enough to fall and encounter them, which must happen from time to time, given the scale of alcohol intake.
The Adam and Eve, a fine establishment only a short climb up the hill from Dowry Square. I used to work in Dowry Square, many years ago. Short climb. Apparently it has nine beers and four ciders. Short climb.
As far as I can tell – after extensive research – the next watering hole is the world-famous-in-Bristol Mardyke, which according to Google closes at some point, though not at any time known to Einstein, who often drank there (Martin Einstein, Withywood). It may be more accurate to say it opens around 12 noon. One of the few pubs in England (all Scottish pubs have them I am told by Brian, a native of that fine land, where any food item may be battered and deep fried) to have it’s own fish and chip shop. That may be it’s only worthwhile note, these days. Although I find that it is unusually easy to make the acquaintance of attractive young(ish) ladies. Why that may be I cannot fathom.
So, to the Grain Barge, a floating conceit, one of several around the docks which offers food and beverage to the unwary, and even the wary, should they be overcome by a craving for fluids in these hot times. A fine ship and a popular venue with those desperate to escape meaningless employment in the pulsing city (disclaimer: the actual pulse may not be detectable on any known scale), who may desire to entertain and thereby win friends and influence their uncle. Could do with a more interesting menu at the least.
I have missed at least one cafe – they sprout like fungi don’t they – and a restaurant, the Shiraz, which I have yet to patronise, so not quite all on Harbourside. The Gallery, cafe at 133 Hotwell Road is a little gem which seems to open according to some occult rule I cannot quite interpret. Lovely. Good cake. Perfect coffee.
After which the casual stroller must face a long and uncertain hike, hounded by the aforementioned joggers and cyclists until the next oasis shimmers into sight. The Bag O’ Nails which lurks at the base of Jacob Wells Road like a portal into another cosmos, one in which the feline animal is dominant. Since my last visit they appear (I could only glimps it through the open door) to have put up a sign, ‘No Pub Crawl Idiots’, why this may be I can’t imagine. Pork pies are available, a local delicacy, evidently, accompanied by mustard in pots. Described by tourists and other riff-raff as, ‘a proper boozer’.
A very short amble eastwards brings one to The Myrtle Tree, a favoured haunt of extra-terrestrials such as the famous Yoda (see ‘pub of the week’ website) and although food as we know it is rarely available the quality of the company more than compensates. Baguettes may be offered. Check your health insurance before imbibing.
There a couple of chirpy but forgettable coffee houses closer to the water amongst the shoe-box apartments but why venture there unless awaiting the ferry? Or some other encounter. And the Spin Bar, formerly the Salt, which has music sometimes.
So onward and very slightly upwards to the Three Tuns, a haunt of the lunchtime scholar and a good place to find music now and then, for no charge whatsoever. Burgers and similar stuff are produced to a quality unknown in the western hemisphere, with chips. So I am told. Food is unavailable in the evenings I believe, although my information may have dated as there are new proprietors.
Any further jaunting along Deanery Road will inevitably lead the weary and barely refreshed traveller into the fleshpots of the Bristol metropolis, with all the inevitable disappointment that would entail. So, dear reader, we will turn to the right and venture southwards through the new-built desert of Cannons Marsh. Oh, but that it might have retained it’s former dilapidated, but honest glory, a urine soaked scrubland of abandoned warehouses; that was not to be and so one may enjoy the delights of a Marks and Spenser food outlet, nestled nearby a casino, which, with other similar excrescences serve to rook the foolish adventurer of their abundant surplus cash.
The eateries pile against each other, overwhelmed by the flood of 30-somethings desperate to part with their hard-earned in return for some unleavened bread and a spread of tomato paste garnished by unspeakable factory-farmed and factory-made salami stuff, or similar. And some over-priced fizzy alcohol to wash down and sit on the concoction to hold it in place.
Across the stylish Pero’s Bridge, having skirted the Watershed, a place I have eaten at frequently since it opened in 1980, but which charges excess for a simple château, unfortunately. Food is good but not so much choice as before. Has ‘movies’ and is therefore unspeakably vulgar, which is a good thing. Long ago (the ’90s) dance music was played continually, from worn out and stretched cassette tapes (please explain to younger readers) and although I personally did not overly object many other diners opted to eat elsewhere, at that time. The staff appear to be influenced by narcotics, on occasion, although that can be hard to discern from their normal behaviour.
I will turn briefly left to sample the street food available around the Fountains (formerly St Augustine’s Parade); falafel, crepes and much more on high days and holidays. Yummy and friendly. I was offered a swig from a can just the other day, whilst sitting on Neptune’s Steps waiting for the ferry home. Amazing what you can catch in Bristol.
Under The Stars, a converted boat, one of the better places and quite easy to run up a decent bill although the menu prices are reasonable, which may have something to do with the delightful cocktails, and the 1920s theme. Good place to meet and eat as it is so central, and a little under-rated. Then along to the YHA cafe, which is the first to open in the morning and is friendly, has good coffee, and a wonderful selection of bemused tourists to provide entertainment. The best site for people-watching, or people-chatting to.
It is possible to eat and drink in the Arnolfini – formerly an ‘arts centre’, now sadly without the requisit Arts Council grant – and it can be an enjoyable experience. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Just nearby on the Prince Street bridge is the Crepe Coffee Cabin with a Big Issue pitch and some outside seats. Cheaper than the Arnolfini and with an ever unfolding drama of colliding passers-by, a few of whom cannot afford earphones, poor things. Various beggars, tourists, plank riders and other wheeled citizens enliven the melee. One day the Metro Bus will pass nearby, we are told. I await this long delayed event with excitement as it will pause a few metres from my dwelling, where the bus shelter lights have been on for many months, in joyful anticipation.
Turning left over the bridge then crossing the Bathurst Basin footbridge brings the footsore pleasure seeker to The Ostrich Inn which seems to have fallen from favour somewhat, judging by the online reviews and comments. I can’t really say, having not eaten there for nearly a year and only had a snack, which took an age to arrive. One of the most attractive sites on the Harbourside so no excuses, seems that the Cottage Inn syndrome may be spreading.
Strolling past the new apartments on the old General Hospital site one may find the Velindra, named for a steamer of old, which might be described as quirky. May or may not be open, as it appears to inhabit the same parallel dimension as the Myrtle Tree. Fine views of the Avon and Bedminster Bridge, across to the ASDA car park. Permanent traffic congestion (it is on the Metro Bus route which has a 50metre bus lane,) may reduce the air quality below the level which will sustain life, so carry oxygen. Said to be dog friendly, but the mutts are at floor level aren’t they, so hoovering up the carbon monoxide. The new flats next door start at around £260k, but only the penthouses are still available at £825k upwards.
The Louisiana, just along to the west over the Commercial Road bridge, is one of the city’s best music venues, many famous names play here, so check out their web site which has a list of past acts, and visit.
We are now back on the mystery wrapped in an enigma (to many Bristolians) that is Spike Island, and can drop in at the M Shed or any number of cafes. Pork eaters may enjoy the Pigsty, (I have only sampled the coffee, which was cool). Far more interesting is the famous Olive Shed which is lovely and lively, tucked behind a big red shed. Top food on the Harbourside, booking is necessary especially on the busier days, although weekdays lunch is usually ok. It has some outdoor tables. Opens at 11am.
Having enjoyed the best you may happen upon the inexplicably popular Brunel’s Buttery, a shed next to the water with some outdoor tables. The bacon butty is popular, my coffee was surprisingly cool and unpleasant, and so little of it. Staff stay cheerful in the face of relentless touristic optimism. Strictly for meat eaters with no discernible interest in food.
My culinary journey is entering the final phase, as I am now just a few hundred metres from home, amongst the more up-market flats, more up-market than mine at least. Next to the Great Britain is the Greenshank, a floating cafe and catering service which is part of the Bristol Packet enterprise. Nautical, tourist, good.
Heading inland – necessary to avoid falling in the dry and wet docks – one may happen upon The Orchard Inn and again find music, often jazz at least one night a week, and quite a lot of ciders. Described as ‘unreconstructed’ by google, it will have snacks around lunchtime and early evening. Coffee and culture may be got during the day by calling into the Spike Island arts complex on Cumberland Road, with the Vauxhall footbridge across the Avon opening new vistas to the south.
Should you cross over, brave mortal, the spicy pleasures of the Coronation Curry House await. Bookings not required. The Avon Packet loiters nearby, described by CAMRA as fascinating, for reasons known only to real ale aficionados. It could be the collection of toy buses.
That completes my culinary tour of Harbourside, I may venture further south to the spas of North Street at another time.