Woods Restaurant on Alfred Street has notched up 40 years in the business – Melissa Blease chats to owners David and Claude Price and discovers the secret of their longevity
It’s a late summer weekday afternoon at Woods Restaurant and the last of the lunchers have left. The tables are being laid up for dinner and the menus already hold great promise: grilled king prawns with lime and Thai mayonnaise followed by rosemary roasted rump of lamb grab my attention on the a la carte, speedy steak or wild mushroom and spinach spring roll on the bar menu, with Provençale fish soup available on both.
As I wait for proprietors David Price and his French wife Claude to join me, I can’t help thinking that – what with the kind of food on the menu, all the greenery everywhere, the polished wood, the fresh flowers, the tasteful knick-knackery, the spacious-yet-intimate layout, and the horse-racing memorabilia (David’s a keen horse-racing fan) – it’s so classic and so brasserie I could be in one of many similar ventures tucked away down a side street in London’s Soho, or just off Rue Saint-André des Arts in Paris.
I am on the ground floor of what used to be five Georgian townhouses by the Assembly Rooms (the restaurant is named after the celebrated Georgian architect) – and here David and Claude have been maintaining Woods since 1979. That’s 40 years! In an industry that’s rife with challenges and subject to the vagaries of fashion, the economy and even the weather, very few independent restaurateurs survive to celebrate such a landmark. How come Woods is one of the very few exceptions?
“Because we serve really good food, on hot plates, with nice fresh vegetables, bread, butter and jugs of water all included in the price,” says David, in what I swiftly learn to be his trademark down-to-earth manner. “Our philosophy is all about looking after people in the best way we possibly can. Our chef, kitchen and staff team is unbelievably strong, and we’re a family business: our son Gaston runs the front of house with Claude, and our daughter Gabby and son-in-law Joe are both parts of the team too – we can all do each other’s jobs if we have to.
“We can send food out at 100 miles an hour, always beautifully cooked, and there’s no compromise, ever. There are no prima donnas on our staff team, and I never harass anybody because I don’t have to – ever since I chucked the first troublesome customers out when we first opened and threw the last chancy chef out about 20 years ago, we’ve never had a problem…”
“That’s not necessarily a habit of mine!” he laughs; “I love people, I really do – you have to, in this business. But I don’t suffer fools gladly. Don’t cross me – you’re not going to win.”
In one way, this admission comes as a surprise: David is a uniquely charming man, telling hilarious anecdotes with a twinkly grin, running his hand through a mane of silver hair by way of punctuation. I tempt David to a trip down memory lane, back to where Woods began.
“Too many years ago… my first restaurant was a tiny place, just 40 covers, in a former grocery shop in Stow on the Wold,” he recalls. “I knew I needed to open another restaurant but I didn’t want to be in a small place for my whole life. We’d been all over looking for a location: Exeter, Plymouth, Cheltenham. I didn’t want to go to London, and I didn’t want to go back to Birmingham, but I was looking for somewhere substantial – and Bath is substantial. Next door to where we are now, there used to be an antique showroom with an Austin 7 in the window. I walked past, and saw that, and said, I’d love a restaurant right here.”
“In terms of inspiration, we’d been going to Oxford on our days off and one of the original branches of Browns was lovely, back in the day – cheap and cheerful, stylish, and serving fantastic food. I had this vision of doing my own restaurant serving properly affordable food, and doing it really well. When we first opened, we were offering something along the lines of three courses for £7.” These original prices are almost impossible to digest, but they were charging today’s equivalent of around £28 for a three-course dinner at a time when eating out options were limited largely due to either inaccessible, upper-crust fine dining restaurants or the curry house.
If Woods’ prices were unique to Bath then, they’re even more unique to the city now. Although casual dining chains increasingly dominate the high street and political uncertainty threatens to blight the budget, a three-course lunch or early dinner at Woods comes in at £25 and, even if you push the boat out on the à la carte, the final food bill won’t shimmy too far over £60 for two. “You can’t be in this business for the money; if money was the driving force, I’d be gone a long time ago. You have to do it because you love it – and Claude and I love it,” says David. But be honest: has that love grown or diminished over the years?
“Actually, I think what we do has, in one respect, got easier over time – we’re more in control these days, and we don’t take the massive gambles that we used to, in terms of numbers,” he says. “Today, there are far, far more rules and regulations to navigate our way around, and the competition has grown, and we’re not immediately visible because we’re tucked away off the main drag. But our reputation has grown more over the past 20 years than it did in the first 20 years – we’re more consistent, and we’ve had the same head chef since 1994 [Stuart Ash, whom David describes as “the best person I’ve ever worked with in my life; a best friend who I count as a son.”] All these things matter. Everything matters – the way customers are met at the door, the way they’re looked after, our reputation for weddings, and private parties, and the corporate support we receive; the fact that people are so good to us in return for what we do helps us along the way, every day.”
The people that David talks about are, in the main, the loyal locals and regulars who have become like family to him and Claude. “Our regulars have supported us down the generations – many of them first came here with their parents, years ago, and they still come back today; we’re doing birthday parties for third and fourth generation Woods’ regulars now!”
So what will those people do – indeed, what would David and Claude do – when the time comes to spread those linen cloths over the dining tables for the last time? “That’s not even on the cards”, says David, vociferously. “I’ll be carried out of this restaurant in a box. Claude and I are no good at sitting doing nothing, with no purpose, not even when we’re on holiday. What we do at Woods keeps us going. I’ve learnt to recognise good staff, good customers, good suppliers, and to get to where we are today, we’ve simply concentrated on being as good as we can be: honest, straightforward and accommodating. New places open, and our customers tell us what it’s like in some new place or other… but we’re not some new place or other; we’re just Woods.”