[Disclosure: We were invited to dine for free at 44 Cafe Bar Bistro for the purposes of this blog]
Turn your back on Leamington for five minutes and undoubtedly five new places will have opened offering food and drink. Yes, there are closures too, but it feels like the town is having a moment when it comes to new openings, especially over the last few months.
Among those is 44 Cafe Bar and Bistro which opened earlier this year in the Clarendon Street site that was formerly home to Casa Valle.
The passion project of best friends Gavin Leach and Rob Singleton, who own Windmill Hill Brewing Company, 44 Cafe Bar and Bistro and is part of the next chapter for their business, which also owns flating bar and pizza kitchen The Barge and Quarterdeck in Stratford-upon-Avon.
They’re hoping that 44 Cafe Bar and Bistro will help establish their brand the local community, and as well as food and drink, it’s clearly aimed at becoming a venue with a diverse offering from comedy to live music, dance, theatre and tastings as well as classes and networking opportunities, plus a Drinks Festival.
It’s got a lot going on, but not a bad move given that in today’s climate, it’s bums on seats and people through the door that are the key to survival – especially for new venues – and in a place as packed with options as Leamington, relying on food alone can be a tough call.
That said, if you’re going to call yourself a bistro and shout about your food, it still has to be pretty good. Gavin and Rob have spoken openly about wanting 44 Cafe Bar and Bistro to be somewhere that can showcase beer and food pairings, which is the thinking behind its tapas menu and various daily specials.
We visit on a quiet Monday evening – a reminder that events might be the key to pulling people in on nights that aren’t typically popular when it comes to eating out. That said, I’m happy to enjoy a peaceful night with time and space to check out the interior and have the full attentions of front of house manager Luke Hampson, who has stayed after several years in the role and whose commitment to the venue is clear to see.
44 Cafe Bar and Bistro might be all about the beer, but us wine drinkers are welcome, so while Jamie tests out their own Windmill Hill lager I enjoy a glass of red – both perfect for pairing with the tapas that we start with, and the mains we move on to, keen to try from various sections of the simple, but appealing-to-all menu.
The dishes are all fairly familiar – a double-edged sword in some ways, as we all know what we want classics to be like, but I’m pleasantly surprised to find 44 Cafe Bar and Bistro’s kitchen, under the stewardship of Head Chef Lee Mallen, formerly front of house manager at Revive in Warwick, is doing them well.
Prawns pil pil are full of flavour, swimming in not-too-much-but-just-enough good quality oil that’s laced with garlic, and a nice hint of smoke from what I reckon must be the addition of chorizo. The bread they come with is soft and fresh, and the butter even softer and of the same quality as the oil, with a generous sprinkling of sea salt
Jamie’s whitebait is a far cry from the deep fried stuff you get some places, coated with a gossamer light layer of batter, allowing the fish to be the star of the show. It’s a good start, and the right kind of simple, reminding us of the fresh, easy eating of holidays and traditional tapas.
I’m told Rob and Gavin are keen to work with as many Warwickshire businesses as possible, shown in the sourcing of their steak from Hilltop Farm, as well as chorizo from Cureights based in Church Farm, and pizza dough from Virtue Food Company of Radford Semele.
Unable to ever resist a steak, Jamie gives it a go and is again pleasantly surprised. It’s cooked how he asked and clearly of decent quality, though it’s the chimichurri that has him waxing lyrical. Made on site, we’re told, with more of that decent oil and an abundance of fresh herbs to make it sing.
My off-piste choice (for me, anyway) is a three bean chilli that’s earthy and hearty, with a pleasant warmth that’s just right to make it suitable for anyone, not just the heat-lovers among us. It becomes clear – or appears to anyway – what’s been made in house and what hasn’t, because the guacamole it comes with lacks any of the depth or flavours of the chilli and the starters, and is easy to leave, unlike the chilli itself, which stands alone without any second-rate additions.
The portions are generous so we swerve dessert, but I’m quite happy to sit and sip another glass of wine from a list that’s varied and reasonably priced – in line with the food that is at a decent price point compared to some places these days, making it an easy option for a midweek meal.
It’s this ease – in the choosing, eating, and paying – that is 44 Cafe Bar and Bistro’s attraction. As a restaurant alone, some might think the menu a bit simple, focusing on crowd pleasers like pizzas, burgers and snacks, along with small plates and a couple of bistro options. But this is the aim.
It seems clear to me that the food is just one part of a broader appeal on offer here. It’s designed to fit into a tapestry of drinks, events and entertainment. It’s accessible, both in price point and in choice on offer, and while fairly simple, the food for the most part is done very well, and the service when we went was attentive, friendly and relaxed.
The food is decent, the environment enjoyable, and it’s one to get your diary out for if you want to add entertainment to an eating and drinking experience in Leamington. The first comedy night has already happened, and judging by the full house, I reckon 44 Cafe and Bistro might be on to something.
For more information on all of 44 Cafe Bar and Bistro’s events, including comedy nights as well as its first Drinks Festival on August 17th and 18th involving local distilleries, breweries and wine merchants, visit their website here.