Bilby Bites - the food blog from Bilby Marketing

Bill’s Café, Restaurant & Store, Exeter

When I first saw the renovations starting on the old G2 store in Gandy Street I didn’t hold out much hope for what might be replacing it. I had never stepped foot in the previous shop and the location didn’t seem to be all that great. My 3 week sojourn in Australia during March saw the Bill's Cafe, Restaurant & Store project come along in leaps and bounds and it was only once I had returned and clocked the site progress, that I started to dig a little and find out some more about Bill’s history. What Exeter didn’t need was another restaurant chain, but the facade of the building had personality, so my interest was piqued.

Bill Collison seems to be a hard worker. Starting out as a greengrocer in Lewes, Sussex, he lost everything - his house and his business - in October 2000, in a flood. Within the year he had opened a store and café on the same site and 5 years later won an Observer Food Monthly award for Best Newcomer. The 9th site in the chain opens next week. That is a serious piece of determination and well deserved success in my view. A couple of weeks ago on a Friday night, I phoned JC and made a last minute decision to visit the restaurant for dinner. Having passed several times since it opened, I was keen to visit. I was also in the mood for a spontaneous treat and not in the mood for cooking.

The pavement dressing is one of the things that made me really want to go inside to being with, which I know is just their game. I may be in marketing, but I get caught out by these sorts of emotional hooks all the time. Cute little metal tables, with flowers in pots and vintage design menus. The big sliding windows/doors that open the inside to the outside a la Australian restaurants was also a big draw. Inside, the props continue, with lots of lovely produce dotted around the large, but homely looking space. Colourful raffia bundles hang from the ceiling, olive oil, tins of La Chinata paprika and a host of other tasty continental goodies, sit alongside bottles of Bill’s beer, biscuits and marmalade on shelves that line the room. The website explains, ‘We wanted Bill's to be somewhere that really celebrated food, that was abundant and welcoming to everyone.’ The stage is most definitely set to entice you in and feed the senses.

So, now to the food. JC and I were both pretty hungry and the overall mood of the evening was ‘Friday night cheery’. I had phoned ahead to check on whether I needed to reserve a table and the friendly girl at the end of the line had said things were pretty quiet, but she would add my name to the list any way. When we arrived, surprisingly it was busy and the two members of staff we spoke to could not find us on their list. We were seated fairly quickly despite this little service glitch and I navigated my way past a few hanging obstacles to my seat on a long bench. Another couple later joined us at the other end of the bench and we shared a chuckle as they sat down and knocked the table in the process. I don’t mind this sort of set up providing you are not rubbing elbows.

It being Friday night, I was initially drawn to the aperitifs and cocktails which were very reasonably priced at £3.95, compared to the house white at £3.95 a glass. Sadly the fruit belini I had my eye on was not available; nor was the usual house white, so I opted for the Stormy Cape South African Chenin Blanc (£4.20 per glass) and was told by the attentive waitress that I would only be charged the house white price. Despite not being able to fulfil my first two requests, our waitress managed to navigate round the problem nicely.

After a good scouring of the menu, JC decided on the home-made cod fish finger sandwich (£8.50), whilst I opted for the halloumi and hummus burger (£8.95), both of which came with skinny fries. The presentation was good fun, with my dish served on a wooden board, with a separate little pudding mould filled with fries. Despite being a little unsure about the halloumi and hummus combination as both of these tend to be quite gentle in flavour, the sesame seed bun, rocket, roasted peppers, sweet chilli sauce and yogurt all came together to make for a very tasty burger. Salty, sweet, creamy and fresh - a great balance. JC’s fish finger sandwich came up trumps too with tartare sauce, rocket and ketchup on toasted white bread. The fish chunks were large and juicy, so if you are expecting some sort of childhood trip down memory lane like JC was, you might be disappointed.

I’m always trying to be good when it comes to dessert, so I thought long and hard about ordering something sweet before giving in to the warm mini cinnamon doughnuts with fresh strawberries and warm chocolate dipping sauce. A kind of British take on churros. My kind of pudding. The concession was to share with JC and I’m very glad we did this. The portion size was perfect for two and at £5.50 made for a perfect end to the meal, in terms of my bank balance and waistline. It was absolutely gorgeous to boot.

On my way to the table, I had picked up a leaflet that turned out to be a price list with tick boxes that allowed you to select products and hand back to your waiter or waitress for processing. At the end of the meal, they bring the produce to the table and charge it to your bill. Looking at the prices on the list I was unsure as to how many people might take them up on this service, but it is intriguing nonetheless. The novelty value and a few too many aperitifs may just lead some people to madly add a £30 tin of XV olive oil to their £30 evening meal, but we were having none of it. I do need paprika though, so maybe on my next visit I’ll try it out.

Overall, I found the whole Bill’s experience to be very pleasant and different enough from all the other Exeter restaurant offerings to keep me going back. It gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling and it wasn’t just the wine doing that. The decor is bright, quirky and elegant at the same time, with smatterings of dark wood, shimmering glass and colourful packaging. A quick trip upstairs offers further insight into Bill’s personality - a sign on the stairs quoting Bill, that said ‘I don't know what all the fuss is about, it's only quiche and fairy cakes’ and a chandelier made from large, empty tins of olive oil. The experience is, dare I say it, somewhat contrived, but I can’t be sure whether this is just cynicism on my part. If I didn’t know Bill’s was a chain I might not feel that way. In any event, if they can maintain this formula of reasonably priced, tasty modern British food and friendly service, then they may just become a city favourite. I’m going back this Friday night and I’m keen to do a breakfast sitting soon too!