This year Bell’s Diner turns 40 and, during its 40 years, this veteran of Bristol’s fine dining scene has existed in many incarnations. Since Connie Coombs took over in 2013, it has been lauded in local and national press for its relaxed atmosphere and a small plates menu driven by seasonal produce. I cannot speak of Bell’s history or past prestige, but I can tell you that its current guise is characterised by sheer loveliness.
The restaurant is a simple setting, which is lit up (if you’re lucky) by the sunshine streaming in through large windows that wrap around the building. Bare floors and wooden furniture are prevented from becoming sparse by homely touches – cushions strewn on benches, old record players tucked in corners, shelves stacked with wine bottles, OXO tins and coffee roasters. Although the front parlour is the most atmospheric, open hatches and doorways allow the infectious buzz of a contented clientele to drift throughout all three dining areas.
Wine soon arrives. The house red is by no means the poor man’s choice. It is a gentle Grecian number structured by subtle berry notes and soft tannins, which glows a pale ruby-red in the last evening rays. It proves to be the perfect accompaniment to the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern influenced menu.
We begin with the 'lighter' dishes, though even these have touches of decadence. Bread comes with jamon butter, croquetas ooze with manchego and our salt cod fritters arrive with an irresistible, velvety garlic aioli.
Larger dishes seem, by contrast, a little less rich. A charcoal-grilled aubergine and pepper salad is suffused with a deep smokiness, which is balanced by the smattering of sweet pomegranate seeds. Falafels have crisp blackened shells that conceal a surprisingly green-hued centre, coloured by fava beans. Lighter and moister than chickpeas, fava beans also bring a nutty flavour that marries well with a slightly bitter tahini sauce.
Then there is a fillet of hake that has been cooked just-so until it flakes apart onto shreds of salty, smoked ham hock and pearls of broad beans. Best of all is a trio of vegetable fritters beneath a sweet tomato sauce, whose crisp golden crusts break through to a squidge of molten feta and courgette. The final touch is peppery dill, which works to focus the softer flavours of vegetables and cheese.
For pudding, perhaps there will be a flourless chocolate cake, rhubarb frangipane tart or passion fruit meringue. Seeking something small to seal the meal, we opted for the salted caramel truffles. Except these truffles are certainly not small, but almost a dessert in themselves: their thick, dark chocolate cases shatter in the mouth to a smooth, buttery milk chocolate before yielding to a liquid caramel centre. They were a sweet ending to the sweetest evening at Bell's Diner.