“ The Glass Boat Restaurant / Welsh Back / Bristol / BS1 4SB / Tel: 0117 929 0704. „
Bristol's Glass Boat restaurant has been a popular and famous landmark for as many years as I've been visiting the city. The reclaimed barge has been operating as a restaurant since 1984. In the middle of the city centre, adjacent to the historic Bristol Bridge, the large, permanently moored craft, occupies a prominent site on the riverbank, overlooked by the traffic crossing the bridge and the large herd of swans that adorns the picturesque river setting. Earlier in the year, the boat was taken away for a long overdue refit, but has since returned to its mooring to entertain and maintain its position as one of Bristol's most prominent eateries.
The layout of the boat is effective, with a deceptively large capacity. Entering the boat at bank level, you are greeted at the bar and then shown to your table in one of three areas. To the stern, the tables have a secluded feeling, almost huddled together away from the masses and the views from the glass windows are less enticing. The dining area situated in the bow is more open and the views much more impressive; a large, full-height picture window at the very front provides unbroken views down the river, taking in some of the city's historic buildings as well as a peep at the majestic Redcliffe church spire. One particular table occupies a prime spot for this part of the boat and tends to be occupied by couple's out for a romantic meal. In the middle of the boat a number of tables are arranged on the opposite side of the bar, with another different perspective, looking straight down on to the river and up to the bridge. Arguably, this area might be better utilised by a lounge area, for guests to use before or after their meal but diners in this area can still enjoy relative peace and tranquillity unless the waiting staff are on the hefty side, in which case the floor beneath them will heave and shift with every course being passed to the bow.
Downstairs, there is a private function room, fairly luxuriously decked out but sadly not benefiting from the lovely views that diners upstairs would enjoy. Nonetheless, for those seeking complete seclusion, it's a good choice. The toilets are also situated downstairs and are clean, well-fitted and airy; a rarity on this type of converted premise. Access for wheelchair users is fine upstairs (there's a wide entrance to the stern) but I'm not entirely sure how any such guests would use the toilets.
Booking a table is recommended for the Glass Boat (and probably essential for those busy weekend evenings). The welcome at the Glass Boat is not as warm as you might expect. Formal and friendly in a clipped kind of way is probably the most flattering way of describing things and the service varies wildly according to the staff member on duty. For what is a fairly formal dining environment, the presentation of staff members leaves something to be desired and in general they could all benefit from smartening up. However, regular diners are recognised and welcomed rather more warmly and some of the regular staff members are genuinely helpful.
Food wise, the Glass Boat menu is pan-European with some British influence. The menu varies seasonally (but not enough during the season). The dinner menu boasts around 8 or 9 starters and main courses; the lunch menu has around 5 or 6. Interestingly, the restaurant also offers a full breakfast menu, brought about by its proximity to the riverside Mercure hotel and is popular at all times of day. There is also a separate Sunday lunch menu, as well as a set menu for parties of ten or more. The wine list is truly extensive with over 600 wines listed. Sadly, this isn't always reflected in availability and your first choice may not always be there. Prices for wine range from £15 to £165.
The food is not simple. Most of the dishes are quite intricately flavoured and styled and there is a strong emphasis on presentation and innovative flair. This is the sort of food where the flavours are rich and strong and as such the portions tend to be conservative but often presented in an attractive enough manner to make the diner feel guilty about eating them. The variety of dishes is good. Meat eaters are well catered for; there are normally one or two chicken and fish courses and at least one vegetarian course too. The quality of preparation varies. I've had some delicious meals at the Glass Boat but I've had some truly disgusting ones as well.
The starters are very hit and miss. The Parmesan and Walnut Soufflé is outstanding, complemented by a simple apple, walnut and celery salad, but the combination of rich cheese and nutty soufflé is absolutely delicious. The baked figs are rather nice too, the sweetness offset perfectly by the goats cheese filling. The sautéed lambs' kidney however is truly repulsive, with five kidneys laid out on a plate of celeriac puree rather like a road traffic accident. Worse still, when I ordered this dish, the kidneys were barely cooked; bloody and lukewarm in the middle, which frankly put me off the whole of the rest of the meal. Interestingly a similar experience with a barely warmed duck fillet starter seems to be reflected in the restaurant's decision to remove the dish from the menu. It was truly revolting.
The main courses are far more consistent and generally very good indeed. The fillet of beef is always of excellent quality and works really well with fondant potato, richly seeped in stock and delicious side vegetables. The monkfish wrapped in proscuitto ham is surprisingly good, although some will find the creamy vegetable base a little sickly with what is generally quite a rubbery fish. The vegetable risotto is really good, if not a little dull compared to some of the meat dishes. There's also a venison dish that comes with a truly gorgeous garlic mash.
The desserts are even better. The raspberry, strawberry and vanilla crumble was gorgeous but has sadly now been replaced by a more seasonal apple and chestnut variety. The crumble layer comprises fresh oats and huge chunks of brazil nut. There's a trio chocolate plate with the most bizarre chocolate sorbet but perfect for those in need of a chocolate rush. Other treats include banana tatin, lemon and citrus tart and a tangy lime and tequila panacotta.
The whole dinner experience is nicely enhanced by little extras. Prior to starters, the chef sends up a little taster, often chilled soup or parfait. When ordering desserts, all diners get a free glass of dessert wine and the range of liqueurs and coffees is pretty good too. My advice to new guests or those with smaller appetites is to stick to the mains and desserts which are always delicious. The lunch menu is similar, if a little less filling but still quite rich for daytime eating and not something I'd recommend if you have an active afternoon planned. The breakfast is really good; a perfect start to the day, although the surroundings make it a little more formal than some would like.
The service is generally good, although there is room for improvement. Some of the staff members seem to have limited experience and miss some of the obvious service things (they'll lean across you or fail to notice chipped glassware.) It can also be difficult to attract attention during busy periods and they often seem understaffed. If dishes are returned, they are apologetic but not enough to offer free replacements or wine and the standards of service don't match the food standards. This should definitely be an area of focus.
In terms of price, the Glass Boat is at the top end of the market in Bristol and prices reflect this. Expect to pay at least £50 per head for a three course meal with drinks and don't be surprised if you double that. As a treat, however, the Glass Boat is very popular and diners seem to enjoy the subdued, romantic atmosphere of an evening. The Glass Boat is also very popular for wedding parties and the management team are good at creating a sense of occasion. The Christmas and New Year menus, for example, look very tempting indeed.
I like the Glass Boat and always enjoy a meal here (especially when I avoid the starters). I'd like to see improvements in service standards and I think the team could quickly raise the stakes to achieve a score of four out of five. To get to five-star awards, however, I think the menu needs to focus more on locally-produced and ethical foods. Nothing on the menu, for example, is marked as being organic or free range. Nonetheless, if you're looking for a fairly formal, luxurious meal then the Glass Boat is well recommended.