The Red Church, St George

Delayed due to the pandemic – it was supposed to open in April – this new all-day eating and drinking venue is the latest venture from Dave Smeaton (owner of The Spotted Cow gastropub in Bedminster) and Crack Magazine supremos Tom Frost and Jake Applebee.

This is the trio’s second collaboration as they also run The Christmas Steps pub in central Bristol, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they have their sights on more projects in future.

Smeaton has long been a ‘face’ on the local scene, both as a DJ and from running independent clothes shops in the 1990s. He’ll be the first to admit he’s one of life’s hustlers and even as he approaches 50, his mum is probably still asking him if he’ll ever get a ‘proper’ job.

Let’s hope he never does get a nine-to-five job because Smeaton has a rare golden touch when it comes to spotting potential in previously unloved sites in neighbourhoods on the up.

He did it at The Spotted Cow in south Bristol – an area where there are now £1m houses for sale – and the launch of The Red Church in a disused Lloyds bank is now sure to contribute to property price rises in BS5. Estate agents must love him.

Not that this down-to-earth Mancunian wants to be responsible for too much gentrification – he just likes creating nice places where local families can hang out and enjoy quality food and drink.

Smeaton also seems to know anybody who’s anybody on the city’s music and culture scene so expect plenty of big name DJs to be lining up for slots at The Red Church, where there is a vinyl-only policy and a phenomenal vintage cinema sound system that once lived at Pinewood Studios.

On the night I ate there, Smeaton was putting the records on himself – Chet Baker followed by Miles Davis – and the vintage jazz tunes floated around the high-ceilinged room like the best cinema surround sound you’ve heard. 

The sound has a richness and depth but even at higher volumes, it never gets in the way of conversation. It has to be the best sound system in Bristol apart from Daddy G’s house.

Vast windows on two sides of this corner site opposite the greenery of St George Park, allow light to stream into the room with its exposed brickwork and concrete floor. 

Furniture has been carefully sourced, much of it being mid-20th century pieces made by designers like Ercol. The furniture and much of the look was left to Smeaton’s old DJ chum Ben Dubuisson who runs the Lowlands shop on Colston Street with his wife, Erica. Their impeccable taste shines through in all corners of the venue, from the vintage enamel lamps to the frosted glass chicken wire panels.

The bar is framed by the thick, indestructible walls of the original bank vault, with a reclaimed wooden counter at the front.

Local beers dominate its handpumps, from the likes of Arbor Ales down the road to the pub’s own golden Crack Hops ale made at Twisted Oak brewery in Wrington.

The kitchen is fronted by Simon Miller, ex-head chef at The Ethicurean, and his evening menu is split into sourdough pizzas and more restauranty main courses, all of it seasonal and locally sourced.

After nibbling on superior courgette fritti (£2.95) that were stiff and crunchy rather than the usual greasy and floppy disappointment, I had the braised shin of beef (£11.95) with truffled whipped polenta, shiitake mushrooms and Pecorino. The slow-cooked meat had serious depth of flavour and the creamy, intensely truffly polenta luxurious. The fleshy mushrooms provided a juicy autumnal edge and a scattering of crispy onions added a brittle crunch. 

We also tried the oven-fried gurnard (£13.95) – super-fresh fillets teamed with an assertive tapenade, roasted pink fir potatoes, ruby chard and slices of zesty preserved lemon and salty capers.

From a short dessert list, a moist and springy slice of orange polenta cake (£5.95) was topped with thick clotted cream and a refreshingly fruity orange gel.

With pizzas under £10 and only a sirloin steak main course piercing the £15 barrier, prices are generous and clearly aimed at enticing locals to visit regularly rather than for special occasions.

Like that exquisite sound system, the opening of The Red Church must be sweet, sweet music to the ears of BS5 residents. 

Is it a café? Is it a pub? Is it a restaurant? Despite spending a couple of highly enjoyable hours at The Red Church, I’m still not quite sure what it is exactly. One thing’s certain – I can’t wait to go back.

The Red Church, 190 Church Road, St George, Bristol, BS5 8AE.

Sonny Stores

Sonny Stores sounds more like a neon-lit liquor joint in 1950s Harlem than a bright and breezy Italian-inspired deli-cum-restaurant in downtown Southville.

It’s actually named after the eldest son of husband-and-wife owners Pegs Quinn and Mary Glynn but it’s also a tongue-and-cheek reference to a Mafia gangster in The Godfather.

Neither Pegs or Mary are Italian and they didn’t want to go down the obvious route of naming their first venture after an obscure Italian ingredient, as is often the way.

After several years as the highly regarded Birch restaurant, this sunny corner site has actually returned to its original life as a local provisions store, albeit one selling tins of San Marzano tomatoes at £2.80 a pop, cartons of organic oat milk and high-end pasta, rather than Pot Noodles and cans of Special Brew.

Sonny Stores opened last month after the couple ran Lockdown Pizza, a temporary takeaway business that gained something of a cult following over the summer.

Prior to that, chef Pegs worked at Bristol restaurants Bianchi’s and Ripiena, the latter being where his cooking gained a glowing review from Jay Rayner.

Before he moved to Bristol, he was a chef at London’s legendary River Café and it shows in every dish emerging from the tiny kitchen at Sonny Stores.

With two benches outside and a handful of socially distanced tables inside, the whitewashed room is certainly intimate, especially with locals popping in for their takeaway coffees and slices of pizza (£5/£6 a slice – the one with the Gorgonzola dolce topping comes highly recommended).

At a time when city centre cafes and delis are suffering from a dramatic drop in footfall as more people work from home, neighbourhood joints like this are thriving and in many ways its hustle and bustle reminded me of the brilliant Italo Deli in London’s Vauxhall.

The blackboard menu is concise, and dish descriptions are economical. Of the four starters/appetisers listed, I had the Cantabrian anchovies (£7) – five silver-skinned fish shimmering in a puddle of grassy olive oil with a generous squeeze of lemon and an open-handed dusting of thyme.

To follow, a trio of meaty lamb ribs (£13.50) achieved the correct balance between crispness and succulence, the sweet richness of the fat countered by the charred bitterness of the roasted tardivo (part of the radicchio family) and punchy salsa verde with heaps of fresh mint and a generous splash of really good Chianti red wine vinegar.

The menu evolves throughout the week so it’s more than likely to be entirely different on the next visit but roasted chicken, dattorini tomatoes, lentils and mustard fruits (£14) and slow-cooked tomato, pecorino and mint taglierini (£11) are typical of the style. There’s also a daily-changing toasted sandwich for a tenner.

Lunch came to a gratifying end with a slice of Bramley apple tart (£5.50). Pegs uses whichever apples arrive in the kitchen on the day but the sharpness of the cooking variety worked in tandem with the buttery, crumbly pastry and dollop of fluffy crème fraîche.

This is not fancy, poncey food. It’s unpretentious, ingredient-driven Italian homecooking that just happens to be produced by a chef with years of experience in top-end restaurants.

If anything, Sonny Stores is a home-from-home community asset and we certainly need a few more places like it. It’s the neighbourhood hub all of us dream of having at the end of the street but it’s equally worth travelling for and one of the most exciting new openings in Bristol all year.

Sonny Stores, 47 Raleigh Road, Southville, Bristol, BS3 1QS. Instagram @sonnystores

Four Wise Monkeys

Pop! No sooner had I grabbed the chopsticks than a cork flew across the room, narrowly missing my head.

‘Shhh…we’re not allowed to have fun anymore, are we?’ whispered one of the birthday group on the Japanese anime-clad table next to me. Their second bottle of Prosecco was being poured by a masked waiter against a soundtrack of throbbing hip hop beneath a ceiling of colourful 80s-style neon strip lights.

For 12.35pm on a grey October Monday, there was certainly an unexpected air of bonhomie at Four Wise Monkeys. If it wasn’t for a handful of lunchtime office workers sporting lanyards, it could have easily passed for last orders before the current 10pm kicking out time.

On the Corn Street site where Spanish tapas bar Pata Negra stood until lockdown, this is the latest opening from the Hyde & Co Group which also runs local hospitality hits Bambalan, The Ox, Hyde & Co. and Milk Thistle.

The group also has Wapping Wharf shipping container restaurant Seven Lucky Gods, the success of which essentially inspired this facsimile Pan-Asian fusion diner.

The menu has been created by executive chef Todd Francis and it plunders Japan, Korea and Sichuan.

On day four of opening, the full menu had still to be introduced but there were still plenty of tough decisions to be made and return visits planned to try any overlooked dishes.

The menu takes in snacks and small plates, ‘Evil’ noodles and rice dishes (including a rich and spicy ox cheek rendang curry), and a choice of sandos (burgers) including a soft shell crab bun with mango hot sauce and the signature KFC (Korean fried chicken) imported direct from Seven Lucky Gods.

Things got off to a fiery start with a warm salad of belly pork and scallops (£12). The crisp, bite-size nuggets of pork and the crunch of peanuts offset the sweet scallops and sour tingle of the pickled cucumbers. It was all brought together by the salty honk of fish sauce.

The kitchen hasn’t wasted time trying to replicate the gyoza sold around the corner at Eatchu in St Nicholas Market – why try to beat perfection? – so they simply serve the very same Japanese dumplings. The five plump, silky parcels of bosky mushroom and pungent, chewy kimchi were drizzled with spicy mayonnaise and a flurry of micro coriander for freshness.

I also tried the pork dan dan noodles (£12), a substantial dish of rich and garlicky pork mince with the familiar prickle of Sichuan pepper, soothingly slippery noodles, crumbly peanuts and steamed pak choi Chinese greens.

OK, those of you familiar with nearby Chilli Daddy’s mouth-numbing ‘number five spice’ dishes might consider it a bit lightweight but it still had a kick like Conor McGregor and despite the ice-cold pint of Asahi, my lips were still stinging a good 15 minutes after I paid the bill.

As I left, the Prosecco corks were still popping on the birthday party table and who can blame them?

With so much greyness and gloom about these days, this must-visit new opening is a shaft of sunlight, a fun place that positively encourages a little monkey business, not to mention a very long lunch. Matt Hancock would hate it.

Four Wise Monkeys is open seven days a week for all day from 12pm – 10pm Monday to Saturday, with last service available on Sundays at 9pm. At the weekend, brunch is served from 10am-1pm.