I like Bristol plenty, enough to live here for nearly fifteen years, but I’m not sure I like it in the way I’m supposed to. A typical Bristol enthusiast will tell you that it’s a vibrant, diverse, happening place, like a laid-back outpost of trendy London in the provinces, or a West Country Brighton. A friend overheard a Bristol University student say, ‘Bristol is like a sort of second-home London.’ Well, yah.
Bristol’s greatest advocates rarely come from Bristol. They like the place as an idea, and one that reflects on them: they are vibrant, diverse, laid-back and happening, that’s why they’re here. Like almost everything to do with coolness, it’s boring.
I like Bristol as a place. I like its Bath stone buildings and its hills, I like its greenery, I like it because it’s small but sprawling, old and new, cheerful, a bit shabby and mixed up; I like it because you can walk just about everywhere. It’s a good place to live. The coolness isn’t the attraction, it’s the price you pay for having good places to eat and drink and some art around—though not, perhaps, as much art as some would have us believe.
The vista I most associate with Bristol, and which in a peculiar way I love, is from high to low on Park Street. I walked down the hill five mornings a week for six years on my way to work, spring, summer, autumn and winter, and the view could be beautiful. Sometimes the sky was golden, matching the glowing Bath stone of some of the older buildings; sometimes it was pink or strikingly blue; in the two freezing winters of 2009 and 2010 it could be as cold and pure as Narnia in perpetual winter. As I walked down one of the two golden unicorns on top of the council buildings at College Green would come in and out of view. Some mornings, especially at the beginning and end of university terms, or during the Christmas party season, I’d look down and see gulls eating bits of discarded kebab, with strands of lettuce and pale slices of tomato strewn across the pavement, while sometimes the gulls would be eating from a puddle of sick. And then I’d look up and there was the noble unicorn. I liked this contrast and thought that it wasn’t a bad metaphor for Bristol, and for life.
I’ll miss the old place.
A few Bristol favourites
Bristol has some very fine independent wine merchants. There’s the oldest of them, Avery’s (est 1793), and then there’s Clifton Wine Cellars, but above all for me there’s Corks. They don’t stock anything they haven’t drunk; for a smallish shop (now shops), their range is amazingly good; they have all sorts of interesting wines, and also spirits, fortified wines, vermouths, etc; the owners and staff all know their stuff in an unpretentious way. It’s also just a likeable business and obviously a pleasant place to work—the owners recruit and keep hold of good people, which says a lot.
On my way to and from Corks on Cotham Hill I often walk past Cotham Hardware Store and wish that I were more practical so I could shop there more often.
Like at Corks, the owners and staff at Twoday Coffee Roasters know their stuff but in an unpretentious and likeable way. I’ll be getting them to send me beans by mail order, but I’ll miss their conversation. Sometimes when I went in at a quiet moment I’d catch one of the owners reading a history of Byzantium, say, or Joyce’s Ulysses—and they’d shrug and be embarrassed to be seen reading something highbrow. I liked this. It was Bristolian, but not cool Bristolian.
I got my hair cut for more than ten years up the hill and round the corner at Patrizio’s Barbershop. Rather than books, we’d often talk about films. The owner put me on to In Bruges, and his description was almost identical to the one a film writer friend later gave, but with a lot more swearing. When Patrizio (Sicilian–Bristolian and fluent in both dialects) is going to swear he looks around to see if there are any children in the place and then gives the words in a loud whisper that cuts through the room and every other voice in it. It was the same when talking about food, drink and the world at large. And I always got a good professional cut at a reasonable price.
My first local in Bristol has long since changed hands and character, but if I were staying my new one would be Chums on Chandos Road. It’s a micropub, which sounds on-trend, but really it’s a good old-fashioned and low-key pub with no frills, excellent beer (reasonably priced) and an amiable landlord and staff. There aren’t so many places like it in central Bristol now.
When Ruby & White Butchers first opened a few years ago it looked like it might be a bit too hipsterish, with banging music and a lot of the usual stuff about sourcing etc. But it’s just good meat, good butchering and good advice. They also seem to enjoy what they do—which isn’t meant to sound as sinister as it does. As with my other favourite places, it was a pleasure to do with business with them.
In the last few years a lot of very good and individual eateries have opened in the area, and while I enjoy eating at them, none has become ‘my’ restaurant. Perhaps the closest I came to having one in Bristol was back in 2011/2012, with Hong Kong Diner (HKD). It became a regular Friday night post-pub haunt with colleagues and the food was always good, especially when taken from a spinning lazy Susan. Proper Hong Kong dishes, too, a friend who lived there told me. I’ll remember it fondly.
An honourable mention should go to Wong’s on Denmark Street, too. The first time I ate there they didn’t have an English language menu and said ‘We’ll send over the waitress who speaks the best English, tell her what you like and we’ll cook it for you.’ When we didn’t choose wisely, the waitress gently told us that perhaps we’d prefer something else… The second time, with a large group, the co-owner came out and said ‘Put your menus down and let me cook for you. Tell me what you want to spend and I’ll just keep bringing food out until you’re finished.’ Two of the best meals I’ve eaten in Bristol.