Bell's Diner was opened in 1976 by Shirley Anne Bell, then a young self-taught chef and pioneer who saw the potential for a bistro-style diner in this decidedly bohemian part of town. She served the kind of dishes that have become classics of that era - smoked mackerel pate, boeuf bourguignon, chocolate mousse - and Bell’s was an instant success. Shirley Anne worked alongside her husband, John Payne, who began brewing beer in a tea urn under the stairs (appropriately, where the current bar is now), which was sold in jugs to their happy punters. John eventually moved on to set up Smile’s Brewery, one of the first small independent breweries, way before the term ‘craft beer’ had been invented.
Bell’s thrived throughout the 80s and 90s as the restaurant scene in Bristol gradually grew, slowly evolving but never losing sight of its neighbourhood restaurant roots. Peter Taylor was now manning the kitchen, alongside Chris Wicks, a local boy from the Devon lanes who knew a good thing when he saw one. Having earned his stripes at the Bell’s stoves, Chris moved to Rocinantes in 1995 to be head chef alongside Barny Haughton, where he met …
Connie was Barny’s partner (in both senses of the word) at Rocinantes. Like Bell’s, Rocinantes holds a special place in the hearts of all Bristolians of a certain age. The first tapas bar in Bristol – almost in the UK – it offered a whole new approach to eating and drinking in a city that, apart from Bell’s, had little choice but for starchy formal dining rooms, old fashioned Italians and a handful of Greeks, Chinese and Indians. Rocinantes was all about good food and wine but, equally as important, was the sense of relaxed good fun. It grew up to become Quartier Vert, with Connie still at the helm, as Barny went on to open Bordeaux Quay in 2006 on the newly developed waterfront.
In 2008 Connie took over the café bar at Arnolfini, Bristol’s contemporary art centre and called on...
KATE HAWKINGS to help her out.
Kate had strutted her stuff on the floor at Rocinantes since 1990 while also dabbling with other food, wine and writing matters, including a stint at Bell’s. At Arnolfini, Connie and Kate whipped the café bar into shape but never felt it was quite their spiritual home so when Chris announced he was moving on from Bell’s it took approximately 10 seconds for Connie to sign the lease, get SAM SOHN-RETHEL aboard at the helm of the kitchen and SIMON TATTERSALL taking the tiller on the floor. And so, in May 2013, the adventure began….
Sam Sohn-Rethel – head chef @sam_sohn
Sam came knocking on Quartier Vert’s door the day after he graduated from university, begging Barny to teach him to cook. Two years later, he headed to London, cooked at River Café, St John and Moro then came back west to open the Lido under Matt Williamson (now chef/prop of Flinty Red) and thence to head up the kitchen at Manna.
Simon Tattersall - manager @beardytatters
Born and bred in Bristol, Simon worked in restaurants in Devon and Glasgow, including a stint with Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park. He returned to his home patch to work at the Arnolfini Cafe Bar with Connie then came on board as our opening manager. He's the one who, according to the Guardian's Marina O'Loughlin in her glowing review, has the "accent so rich and delicious you could spread it on toast."
Now meet the rest of the team, in alphabetical order (we don’t really like hierarchies)
Charlie Haughton – chef
Charlie is part of the Haughton clan – son of Phil of Better Food Company fame; nephew of Barny – so has the food business in his blood, but came to us entirely on his own merits. A degree in Environmental Science took him to Nottingham but the charms of Bristol dragged him back and it’s great to welcome him into the bosom of the Bell’s family.
Doug Sims - chef
Doug came to Quartier Vert as a baby KP when he was 16, then moved on as a waiter at Arnolfini. Now he’s out from behind the sink and onto the stoves, learning quickly and on course to be a really great chef.
Edd Donoghue - chef/FOH @EddDonoghue
Another one we plucked in the first flush of youth, Ed came to work at Bell’s as a work experience KP when he was still at school, but quickly showed his colours as a pretty nifty chef. Now reading Biomedical Sciences at Cardiff, he still graces us with his presence when he’s back in town.
Gillian McKenzie - duty manager/waitress
Gillian is another who transferred with us from Arnolfini, bringing her easy laid-back Kiwi charm and ‘no worries’ attitude. “She’s so good at what she does. She keeps people coming back for more and I love working with her,” says Doug.
Harriet Wiley - waitress/bartender
Harriet is the latest addition to the front of house team, recently moved from the bright lights of London where she worked in classy gastropubs. “A great woman; she’s got a wicked sense of humour. It’s dry as a bone,” says Lydia.
Joe Harvey – chef @joechefharvey
Youngest of the famous Harvey clan, Joe’s got the Italian lust for food coursing through his veins. He started with us as Sam’s sous chef and now puts in part time appearances as he pursues his Café Mulino project with his brother and sister, Ben and Clarrie, who also both worked for us at Rocinantes.
Lydia Jones – waitress
As well as working at Bell’s, Lydia runs her own business buying and selling vintage clothes, which might explains her own retro style when it comes to dressing. “She’s a pleasure to work with. Also, we share a secret love of electric windows and mobile phone holders,” says Edd.
Mek Sharpe - duty manager/waitress
Mek has been part of the furniture at Bell's since she first came to work for Shirley Anne, longer ago than she cares to remember, and then for Chris Wick's as his queen waitress. We were delighted she came to us as part of the fixtures and fittings. “Mek? Mek’s just EVERYTHING,” says Joe.
Olive Wall - waitress
Olive is another who moved with us from Arnolfini. She also puts in appearances at the Pear Café and Dawkins pubs and we’re very happy to share her with them. She has a soft spot for taxidermy and is insanely pleased to have passed her food hygiene course. ”Olive’s a little ray of sunshine and just makes us all laugh,” says Simon.
Simon Dawson – baker/pastry chef @simonpdawson
Simon came into Bell’s looking for a job the day after moving down from Edinbugh where he’d been working at among other places, the famous S. Luca ice cream parlour. Now he makes all our beautiful bread, puddings and ice creams and is, according to Mek, a “lean, mean, baking machine.”
Trish O’Connor - KP
Childhood friend of Maeve, Simon Dawson’s girlfriend (who works at Laura (another alumnus of Rocinantes) Hart’s Bakery), Trish is currently the only woman in the Bell’s kitchen and is our own Rose of Tralee. “I couldn’t understand a word she was saying when she first arrived but now I really cherish Trish,” says Olive.
Zaniah Carigiet-Defries – lead waitress
Zaniah, also known as Zee, came to us thanks to a serendipitous email from Joe Harvey’s cousin who'd been working with her in Sydney, so she was part of the Bell's family before she'd even landed in the UK. She's the one who usually sports the splendid victory curl in her hair. “Zee makes everybody feel incredibly welcome; I’m very proud to work with her,” says Charlie.
This is what the Guardian thought about their visit to us
…and here's what the Financial Times had to say.
Our website was designed and is maintained by the ever-fragrant Daniel Penfold.