Kieran and Imogen Waite had built up their intimate tapas bar, Bravas, into one of the hardest to get tables in Bristol. Their inspired, unpretentious menu has drawn diners from all over Bristol to their small, intimate space in Cotham Hill.
Then, overnight the pandemic made intimate indoor dining the last thing anyone wanted. Early on they were able to create a successful takeout menu, and the demand for a taste of Spain from their sheltering regulars allowed them to at least survive the first lockdown. But it became clear that in order to stay relevant as diners began to venture back out, they would absolutely need to secure outdoor seating. So they began conversations with the neighbouring restaurants and businesses, and with the Bristol City Council, largely around closing portions of the road to cars in order to make space for shops and punters to move into the open air.
Pedestrianisation became the buzzword in several neighbourhoods, or at least in their WhatsApp groups. Ultimately Cotham Hill was one of the areas approved for temporary closure to vehicular traffic, to support an expansion of outdoor dining and socially distanced trading. 'The road closure has been a massive success,' said Kieran, noting that not only has it been critical to their ability to serve customers, but it's also built a strong bond between them and their neighbours. 'We were outside engaging with each other in our efforts to organise and get this over the line [with the Council], but now where before we were all inside our own businesses, now we're all out on the street together every day.'
Once that temporary plan was approved, Bravas was able to invest in building the outdoor seating and canopies that could stand up to al fresco dining in the British spring weather. 'I've been here when it's been absolutely pissing down and it's been full out there. We had people using umbrellas as additional coverage, trying to keep dry as best they can. It was very spiriting to see.'
Image: The team at Bravas worked with their neighbours and Bristol City Council on the pedestrianisation of Cotham Hill, allowing them to safely extend their seating area into the street.
‘We opened outdoors and it was probably one of the worst Aprils and Mays in living memory,’ says Kevin Hanley, owner of Steam Bristol. ‘The wind was constant and we had rain and it was bloody freezing, but people rugged up and came out!’.
Early in the pandemic, Kevin invested heavily in utilising more of the outdoor space available to him in front of the Victorian rail station that now houses his festive, sprawling beer hall. They invested in building up their outdoor infrastructure, converting a container into an outdoor burger kitchen, another into a full service bar, putting in a bit of artificial grass, building several custom, individually sheltered bench seating pods of his own design (which he calls 'moongate tables') and most dramatically, ordering up a massive stretch tent from South Africa.
Kevin's story of installing the tent involves dramatic hand gestures that represent ‘king poles’ and 'prevailing southwesterly winds,' and feels more like a sea captain's tale of trimming a mainsail in a hurricane than that of a jovial bar owner setting up a patio area now known as 'Camp Funtime'. ''I've always been in the business of creating mad spaces, bars and restaurants, and it's something I enjoy doing. And for some reason whatever I think of, young people seem to love.’
Kevin seems genuinely at home holding court in the middle of his sprawling patio, among the bustle and converted buses. ‘If you have been blessed—rather than being some kind of business guru—if you happen to have this pandemic hit you and you have outdoor space, you were blessed, you take full advantage of that.'The early investment was critical, and enabled Steam Bristol to see its busiest ever weeks with the most recent re-opening, fully booking out every available space.
Image: Steam Bristol created a festival style covered beer hall to increase it's seating capacity whilst operating under COVID restrictions.
'It's been a wonderful period but you don't want to get carried away with it. Four weeks ago this place at this time was flying, now it's slowly da-dump, da dump,' Kevin trails off as he surveys a brisk, but not heaving lunchtime crowd.
All around Bristol, pubs and restaurants are looking at the investments and changes they've made to expand their outdoor capacity and hoping that it is enough to weather whatever lies ahead, the unknown combination of rule changes and shifting demands in terms of what people are going to want when they meet up to eat and drink in the years ahead. Both Kevin and Kieran are at least certain that the investments they've made will remain as increased capacity no matter what else happens.
For Kevin and Steam, the additional outdoor seating and additional bar, that means they will be able to host private parties such as weddings they would previously have had to turn away.Kieran recognises that after they are allowed to go back to indoor seating at full capacity, the additional outdoor space will mean an overall increase in their total covers, ongoing. He sees a lasting impact on outdoor spaces around the city.
For one, the area surrounding Bravas is now more accessible. 'In some places it's so narrow you couldn't call it a pavement. It just wasn't safe,' says Kieran, who remembers watching pedestrians having to walk in the busy street to pass socially distanced queues at the neighbouring pharmacy. But moreover, he sees a parallel to a previous time when British pubs and restaurants were all forced to pay attention to the outdoors. 'You first saw this when the original smoking ban happened. We weren't making the most of our outdoor spaces, and then pubs and restaurants had to start to think about that more, and invest more into these spaces.'
And the impact of those investments are still with us, as sprucing up the spaces led to more interest in actually using the spaces, and a lasting shift in behaviours. It's easy to view all this expansion into the outdoors as an emergency, temporary measure to address an airborne virus, but people have also clearly embraced the new spaces. There's a novelty to it, which might not be as attractive next time it's chucking it down and there are indoor alternatives, but the fact is we've all gotten a bit used to spending more time eating and drinking outdoors and there are now a lot more cool places to do it.
Author: Tony Chiotti (content writer @ Wriggle Bristol)