A few weeks ago, a foodie I was talking to, from Bristol, was telling me just how much the eating scene had improved in Bristol over the last few years. He explained enthusiastically that the spotlight was now shifting to the southern end of the Gloucester Road, where the opening of smart gift shops, clothes shops and restaurants had resulted in a new age of gentrification and the proliferation of "a cafe culture". So, needing no more encouragement than that, off I went to see for myself. I had been recommended by a friend to make my very first stop at a beautiful cafe restaurant called Tart, and she told me that I just had to meet the cafe's charismatic owner and her daughter, Jenny and Ellen Bashforth.
On the pavement facing Tart, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were standing outside a pasticceria in a prosperous Northern Italian suburb, or a provincial French cafe in the South of France, its broad window and cheery facade announcing its promise from the start. Once inside its glass doors there can be no mistaking that this cafe has grown in its two and a half year existance to become a Bristol community hub, a meeting point for all the Bishopston mothers and local professionals who use it as their breakfast, lunch and tea-time headquarters. Baby buggies are parked in rows, a small queue starts winding round the counter as the smell of freshly ground coffee and homemade cakes fills your head and warms your heart. Grab a seat, bag a table, you've arrived.
Meeting Jenny and Ellen is a small education in the art of starting a cafe and restaurant business from scratch. Jenny said goodbye to the pay and perks of a very senior job in a local authority, and made her way, by bus, coach, foot and taxi, through as many of the main AA guide "Excellence Award" tea rooms in the country as she could. In her business plan research she wanted to evaluate what they were offering, and to gauge how she could make her business just that bit better. Her standards were set high, and her minute attention to decorative detail is on display in every corner. From spotless, shiny floors, to a beautifully decorated private dining room, to the shabby-chic Parisien feel of the furniture and decor, she has set the bar for others to follow. In the private dining room there is a beautiful ornate, rococo style fireplace surrounded by twinkling lights, beautiful porcelain, glassware and cake stands. Tart is not a place to rush: loose leaf tea is served from proper teapots, poured into china teacups, with accompanying hot water refills, napkins and at least a dozen different varieties of cakes and tarts and organic juices to choose from. The baking here is outstanding, they should give courses.
My friends and I ate lunch in the private dining room, served by our very own waitress, Ellen, who brought in a marvellous platter filled with delicious mezze starters: a chicken liver pate as smooth as a mousse, baba ganoush, beetroot and horseradish puree which we spread on toasted brioche bread, crispy skinned patatas bravas and bruschetta with tomato puree and mozzarella. The homemade tomato chutney topped any I had ever tried. The chef, Andrew Griffin, beavered busily away through the glass window, calmly completing the orders that kept coming as the cafe filled to its maximum lunchtime capacity. The kitchen here is constantly at work, producing evening meals for Tart at Night, when the cafe is opened for evening dining, as well as for the various businesses and local groups who book the dining room for private events, parties and meetings.
Throughout it all Jenny and Ellen keep a hawk's eye on all the service, the customers and the clearing of tables as more people enter and queue. It is only a wet, wintry Tuesday, and still the pace is relentless. It is inspirational to think that this business was started from ground zero, and now boasts a customer database of 360 people. It is a thriving local business, a centre that engages the community and creates client relationships. I ask Jenny if she could turn back the hands of time would she do it all the same way again? She admits how very hard she and all her team have worked, and do work, every single day to achieve this standard of perfectionism and polish. Yet we can all see from a mile away how her creativity, strengths and talents would all have been wasted in the world of bureaucracy and civil service. Catering has gained an exemplary role model.