A local restaurant with an outstanding gastronomic pedigree, The Circus has always aimed to create high-quality menus that are accessible, informal and affordable – Melissa Blease talks to proprietor and chef Alison Golden

In the last six months, six new restaurants have opened in Bath, leaping into the gap in the market created by six restaurants that closed in the same time frame. This spring, another raft of new ventures will sail into the city, including one that claims to have “reinvented the concept of the pub,” and a new, smart hotel restaurant in a soon-to-be-unveiled new, smart hotel; ah, the Bath food scene is a swiftly changing landscape indeed.

Given all the brouhaha around which restaurants are hot (and which are very much not) in any given week, it’s heartwarmingly reassuring that The Circus Restaurant on Brock Street remains as consistently popular, fresh and integral to Bath’s independent restaurant scene today as it was when it first opened.

“I always wanted The Circus to be a local restaurant for local people – and it’s definitely become that,” says proprietor/chef Alison Golden. “It’s wonderful that we see the same faces that have become part of our story on a regular basis – some of them even drop by daily. We attract some tourist trade as we’re in a brilliant location for visitors, but the locals are our backbone, including a group that I like to call The Royal Crescent Massive!”, she says.

The Circus Restaurant entrance on Brock Street

Prior to opening the doors to The Circus, Ali had noticed that eating out in the city at the time was largely quite a formal affair. So, she aimed to create a venture with an ambience and menus that were accessible, informal and affordable – an ethos that’s still pushed to the fore at The Circus today.
“I think the secret of our success is that we serve really high-quality food that people really want to eat at prices they can afford, served by well-trained, charming staff,” she says. And what’s not to love about any of that? But just because Ali’s much-loved modern bistro has earned itself institution status in Bath, she knows she can’t rest on her laurels.

“As there’s so much competition in Bath these days and more and more chains opening all the time, we strive to show off our independent status as much as we can,” she says. “My menus have definitely become more original, inventive and probably a bit more British as time’s gone by, and we work hard to prove that we really do try to source as locally and seasonally as possible – a mission that most restaurants only really pay
lip service to. I’m all for people having choice and it’s great that there’s a thriving, buzzy eating out scene in Bath – we all benefit from that. But I think we’ve reached saturation point, and the amount of choice we have is diluting the pot for everyone. But then again, every day is a challenge in the restaurant game, regardless of the climate around you.

The secret of our success is that we serve really high-quality food that people really want to eat at prices they can afford

I think it was the late-lamented restaurant critic AA Gill who, when asked why he didn’t have his own restaurant, said that he’d never want to do that because there’s always something breaking down – if not the machinery, then the staff… and that’s absolutely true! And there are very few businesses that have the time pressures that a restaurant has; we have to be ready with our product at its best for every lunch service, and then again at 5pm come hell or high water, or snow, or deliveries going astray, or no oven, or no electricity – you get the picture! In the past 12 years we’ve had all these things thrown at us time and time again. But the show must go on.

“I remember a Saturday night when I was standing in the kitchen alone at 6pm with 100 people booked in to eat, not knowing why my chef hadn’t come back from a break and why she wasn’t answering her mobile; it turned out she’d blacked out and concussed herself in the shower. So this business is most definitely not for the faint-hearted. You just have to get on with it and cope somehow.”

And before we move on to the upside of Circus life, there’s one modern-day bugbear in particular that really makes Ali’s blood boil. “People not honouring bookings is becoming a killer for independent restaurants,” she says. “These days, people often book two or three places for a Saturday night and then decide which one they’re going to on the evening itself, often without even cancelling the other places. Because of this horrible ‘trend’, we had to start taking fully refundable deposits at weekends and on our internet bookings as we were losing thousands of pounds a year to no-shows. Some people aren’t happy with this development, and yet I find it amazing that the same people wouldn’t bat an eyelid if they were asked to pay in advance for other leisure pursuits such as tickets for a film, the theatre or a sporting event – but they blanch when asked for a small refundable deposit to ensure they honour their booking with us!” Grrrrr indeed.

But really, you’d have to be totally crazy (let alone downright rude) to not honour that booking at The Circus. Ali cites Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Fergus Henderson and food writers Diana Henry and Skye Gyngell as her personal food heroes, alongside Joyce Molyneux, who Ali is proud to say is a friend as well as a regular Circus diner: “Joyce was one of the first women in this country to get a Michelin star (at The Carved Angel in Dartmouth). She has a natural flair and feel for food that we could all do well to emulate,” says Ali. With such bright leading lights of the food world inspiring her, it comes as no surprise that Ali’s own menus sparkle with vivacity, integrity and totally tasteful twists on tradition.

The upstairs restaurant at The Circus

“I design our menus to appeal to a broad cross-section of diners by including familiar crowd pleasers alongside plenty of original, fresh, more modern dishes,” says Ali. “I always feel that there’s no point in going out if you could eat better at home, so I try to do dishes that one wouldn’t necessarily make yourself, or include ingredients that are often difficult to source. A lot of people come to us for our fish dishes, because our fish and seafood orders are delivered nightly direct from Cornwall, whereas a lot of restaurants use farmed fish which just isn’t the same at all. Our foodie fanbase love seeing something that they haven’t come across on our menus before, but I never serve something just for novelty value only, or to follow a trend. We return to our perennially popular ‘old favourites’ on a regular basis throughout the year – our smoked haddock kedgeree, for example, and Whim Wham, the 18th-century trifle recipe. We always have a different crème brulée on the dessert menu, and the savoury cheesecake seems to win approval from our regular ladies who lunch. We’ve recently added some innovative vegan dishes to our menus as well, as people really are sick of the tired old cliché that is mushroom risotto!”

Are you hungry yet? You’ve come to the right place in more ways than one. In terms of ambience options, The Circus’ modern, subtly glamorous brasserie-style street-level dining room could be described as cosy in a bright’n’breezy, contemporary way that makes it stylish rather than snug, and if you head downstairs, you’ll discover the kind of warmly welcoming environment that gently envelopes you in a soft, seductive comforter of bonhomie; it’s safe to say that there’s honestly nothing like The Circus elsewhere in Bath.

“I’m really proud that The Circus has survived thus far despite ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, as an awful lot of places who had powerful PR machines working for them and much higher profiles than ours have disappeared,” says Ali. “It’s fantastic to have ongoing support from publications such as The Bath Magazine, and of course we really appreciate all our accolades from the AA, The Good Food Guide and Michelin too. But the most important thing to us are our regulars who choose to eat with us time after time – their lovely comments make all the hard work worthwhile.”

Roll up, Bath; The Circus is in town… and whatever sideshows may pop up around it, let’s make sure it’s here to stay.

The Circus Restaurant, 34 Brock Street, Bath BA1 2LN. Tel: 01225 466020; thecircusrestaurant.co.uk