“ Restaurant in Cambridge. „
On a recent day trip to Cambridge I decided to have lunch at Browns, on the recommendation of somebody who had lived in Cambridge for several years. My friend had worked at Addenbrooke's Hospital in her youth and a lot of her enthusiasm for the restaurant came from the fact that Brown's is located in an wing of the old hospital building which dates from 1766.
Browns is now a fairly large chain of restaurants, spanning the UK with 27 restaurants, all serving the same bistro style food. Their USP is that they are located in historic and unusual buildings and this gives them an ambience and style that makes them different from many of the other chains.
From the outside Browns in Cambridge was very impressive; old stone columns, a covered stone terrace and Virginia creeper surrounding the large revolving doors. Inside the atmosphere was evocative of the declining days of the Raj, with a lot of brown paintwork, slowly revolving ceiling fans and a huge bar which contained ladies in high heels who were sipping at the cocktails, enthusiastically shaken by the young barman.
The high ceilings had peeling yellowed paintwork and natural light came down onto the tables from the high windows, looking down onto a rather dark interior of brass and brown leather, rather predictably littered with a lot of potted palms.
Looking at the menu, my first thought was that I was going to struggle to find something which was vegetarian. I am not a big fan of goats cheese and there was only one dish on the lunchtime menu that I could eat - the pepper and aubergine flatbread. The lunchtime menu seemed like the best value, with one course for £7.95 and two courses for £10.95. There were three chicken dishes on the menu with various beef, pork and lamb options and a sea bass.
I decided to look at the main menu. This had a bit more choice, with a couple of fish options and a couple of vegetarian options, none of which contained goats cheese. On the recommendation of my friend I chose the Browns House Salad - a plate of edamame beans, avocado, broccoli, semi-dried cherry tomatoes, pomegranate, butternut squash ribbons, green beans,spinach, chard, chicory, baby gem and toasted cous cous with a balsamic dressing. I could have added poached eggs, salmon or chicken to the dish for £2 to £.3.50, but since the salad alone cost £9.95 I decided not to add to it. As a side dish I shared a starter dish of breads and tapenade for £3.95. My friend ordered the Browns burger for £10.95 and we both had a glass of white wine.
The bread and tapenade were delicious, and for me the best part of the meal! There were three types of bread, all very fresh and very tasty and obviously different from each other. There was black olive ciabatta, rosemary focaccia and a reddish paprika artisan loaf. The tapenade was plentiful and really delicious.
Unfortunately my House salad was not so enjoyable. I quickly realised that the salad on its own was not enough to eat and I should have ordered the poached egg topping for £2, unpleasant as this sounded. The selection of vegetables was good and they were fresh but I could not find any couscous in my salad at all, which meant that there was no real bulk or substance to the salad. Portion-wise I found it very small and despite the bread I was still rather hungry at the end of the meal.
My friend's burger and fries looked rather average and again the portions were small, but she told me that it was a tasty enough meal even though she would not order it again.
For desert I had a portion of sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream for £5.95. This really was delicious - heavy and rich with lovely hot toffee sauce and a generous dollop of clotted cream. Luckily I had a lot of room after my rather frugal main course and I enjoyed every minute of desert.
Browns on a Wednesday lunchtime in August is a very busy place, and this perhaps could have explained the very poor service we received. We did not book a table and I think we were lucky to just be able to walk in and find one. Twenty minutes later and they were turning people away or sitting them on the rather chilly outdoor terrace.
The service was really terrible and it was this, rather than the small and expensive main course that made me decide never to visit Browns again.
Firstly we had a long wait until the waitress came to take our order. Once she did, the wine was delivered quite quickly, as was the bread (even though we had asked for this to arrive with the main course). The wine was beautifully chilled, but I immediately noticed rather unpleasant brown splashes down the side of my wine glass. I looked around for any member of staff to ask for a clean glass, but there was no sign of anybody. In the next 15 minutes several waiters rushed past us but did not notice me waving. Our waitress seemed to have disappeared. Eventually I managed to attract somebody's attention and the glass was changed - the waitress rather inappropriately said "Oh Yeuk" when she saw it, but did not give an apology.
The water carafe was very marked with hard water splashes. It looked rather old and nasty - something that I would have thrown away at home, but I didn't bother to mention it.
Over 30 minutes after ordering our main course, it still had not arrived. Eventually we grabbed a flying waitress and mentioned that we were still waiting - and miraculously the main courses appeared immediately, making me think they had been sitting in the kitchen for collection for some time.
The service certainly was not what I would have expected in a restaurant like Browns. The waitress was hurried and abrupt - no time to tell us about specials or discuss our choices. She did not smile and just looked rushed off her feet. We may have chosen a bad day to visit - perhaps there were staff shortages or an unexpected rush, but a well managed restaurant should be able to get over such things and still provide a good service.
We saw no sign of a manger and nobody asked us if we had enjoyed our meal. The bill came to £45 for two people - which is not a cheap lunch at all.
Poor service is one thing that really puts me off a restaurant and I will not be visiting Browns again in Cambridge. I am tempted to try another branch of the chain but I think I will go in the evening, when spending more money for a meal out seems more acceptable.
I got the impression that the cocktail bar brought in a lot of the custom, and perhaps the food standards had suffered a little as a result. A vist to the ladies toilets confirmed that standards of cleanliness had slipped; the ladies was easily accessible on the ground floor and was well equiped - but it was untidy and gave the impression that nobody was keeping an eye on it. There was litter on the floor and generally it did not feel very clean.
My conclusion is that Browns in Cambridge is not recommended; I think it relies heavily on the good reputation it has built up over previous years. Now it needs a bit of a spruce up and a change in management style.
Browns is very centrally located for most of the tourist attractions in Cambridge; a short walk to the river, punting, and shopping centre it is just opposite the popular Fitzwilliam Museum.
Browns Bar & Brasserie Cambridge
23 Trumpington Street