New restaurants seem to open in Exeter pretty frequently, but none of them have seemed to have generated so much buzz as Bill’s Restaurant in recent times. Bills, which sits behind Tescos in Gandy Street has transformed the grim surroundings with its hip and cosmopolitan presence. For more information about how the first Bill’s Restaurant started, head over to their website and have a look. Its a romantic story full of floods and vegetables, and certainly gives you an idea where they started from.
So what makes them different? When you walk in to the store, I mean, restaurant there is a large portion of my psyche that wants to go up to the shelves and peruse the many different items that are all for sale. But at the same time I would feel bad shoving my elbow in some poor persons Chocolate Brownie Milkshake, or clambering over a diner trying to enjoy the Bill’s take on the Fish-finger Sandwich. Is it a shop, or a restaurant? On our visit the waitress saw that I had picked up a copy of the produce leaflet and chirpily said that “she or any other member of staff could get a product from the shelves” should we wish to purchase anything. Nice!
The dining experience seems to be at the heart of their ethos and that is apparent in the carefully designed chaos that seems to adorn the walls and ceilings of the restaurant. Hand-written black boards with the names and blurbs of products hang from the ceiling and writing is scrawled on the walls, giving the place the feeling of casualness that other restaurants in Exeter don’t really do. (apart from Boston Tea Party? kind of?…) Candle holders made of used jars, mismatched furniture and that ‘just-put-together-out-of-the-remnants-that-people-gave-to-us’ feel is carefully designed to put you at ease. This is not the sort of place you NEED to dress up for, even though its nice to wear a shirt, but if you came in scruffy-chic mode you wouldn’t be turned away.
Colette Bernhardt, Times Magazine, is quoted on the Bill’s Website saying “Having won us over with his relaxed take on café culture, Bill Collison is bringing his easy, no-nonsense cooking style into our homes”in regards to the produce and the retail side of things, but the relaxed take is not just on ‘cafe culture’ but also ‘dining culture’. The food comes across as restaurant style food, but served and experienced in a completely relaxed manner.
So we know what Bill’s is about, we’ve looked at the website, what exactly is this place like to eat in? Booking a table is pretty easy, either phone or pop in to see them. I personally like popping in to a restaurant to book the table in person because even a small interaction can be an interesting insight in to the atmosphere of the restaurant.
When I popped in on Monday lunchtime, the place was packed. The waiter I spoke to was very polite, even when he couldn’t find his pen to write down my booking, he maintained calm under incredible pressure. As I stood there momentarily I immediately took in the surroundings. The bare bricked walls, concrete ceiling and the upper level eating area which could be seen through a large and strategically placed hole through the ceiling (which hadn’t been there when it was a shop, years ago).
We arrived at 19:30, the table choosing was pretty informal and we had the choice of a few spaces but wanted one with a comfy sofa. It was right near the bar/service area which gave me a good view of the way the service was organised. We were left in relative peace to talk and order drinks and choose our food, there didn’t seem to be any insistence that we order NOW NOW NOW, which has been the case in places that I have eaten before.
So lets talk prices. Cheapest drink on the menu seemed to be a pot of tea at £1.85, Beers were not on draught as is the case in many restaurants, which meant alcohol was on average £3.50 upwards for glasses/bottles of the usual alcoholic fare. Interesting drink menu option was Elderflower cordial which came either hot or cold (you got more for your money if you had it cold) but warm Elderflower cordial? It was divine, served with chopped citrus fruits and strawberries served in a glass mug, well worth the £2.25.
Mains started at around the £8.50 mark and went upwards. Our table opted for the Bill’s Hamburgers, all with varying degrees of options (added cheese was £1.20, bacon was £1.50 etc.) so with the Hamburger costing £9.95 to start with, it ended up being just over £12 for the main course. We ordered our Hamburger’s medium-rare done, and left it at that. The food seemed to arrive quickly and it was presented well. The skinny chips were presented in an enamel red cup and the burger was presented on a wooden board. Swish.
The chips were perfectly cooked, the burgers tasted juicy and flame cooked, the bacon was dry cured and the cheese was gorgeous. The whole thing stank of good, wholesome and tasty ingredients.
We all agreed that for a medium-rare burger, it was not quite done enough. It was airing more so on the side of rare which was a little surprising to say the least given the reputation of Bill’s. At the end of the meal, I mentioned it to the waiter who asked the manager to come over to talk to us. The ultimate test of any restaurant is how they deal with a complaint, although this wasn’t an official foot-stomping-angry sort of complaint, more feedback to be taken for future reference and despite the offer of free coffee’s and some desserts we felt appeased by the attention, and happy that this wasn’t something that would put us off coming again. The manager was, I felt, slightly surprised that we didn’t want to take a free coffee but the call of a pint of Yellow Hammer from The City Gate Hotel was ringing strongly in my ears.
We left contented that we’d come again and I felt happy that good dining (even if it’d been cooked for 13 seconds longer) in a casual atmosphere had finally arrived in Exeter, and not only that arrived in my part of Exeter (Queen St. and St Davids area). It is nice that posh-yet-relaxed nosh is not JUST in Princesshay. It is also nice that Bill’s does what it does best, and although a tad pricey you leave with a warm glow. The service was quite brilliant and the surroundings were chaotic but vintage-shabby chic. Altogether a really nice dining experience that look forward to acquainting myself with again soon.
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- (Casual) First-date dining ideas (utsandiego.com)