One of SevenStreets’ favourite local restaurants is in trouble. Its problem is clear: it serves consistently great food, offers a genuinely warm welcome, its kitchen champions the best local produce, and it supports St Johns Hospice with every bottle of tap water it sells.
And you don’t have to take our word for it. It’s ranked number one on Tripadvisor, and was in the Good Food Guide in its very first year.
It really couldn’t do any more to keep its customers happy.
The trouble? We just don’t support our local restaurants like we used to. Over the past four years, we’ve elevated the gourmet burger to the point where we’re happy to spend £30 on dinner at a burger joint, tucked into ‘two meals for a tenner’ deals at Wetherspoons, and been seduced by the ever-advancing chain restaurant, with its economy of scale, and its reliably safe ubiquity.
He’s just returned from a gruelling leaflet drop – in this heat – to try and spread the word: ‘ten minutes from here, people don’t even know we exist’ – and now he’s cooking Peninsula’s signature menu of inventive, seasonal, smile-inducing British classics.
One hundred yards away, Marine Point is buzzing. The culinary nexus of Hungry Horse, La Tasca and Marino Lounge – imported chains all – is thrumming with early evening diners, eager to dive into food service dishes transported from a central logistics hub, a pie and a pint for a fiver, or a thin paella and a lacklustre Rioja.
Meanwhile, SevenStreets is tucking into a midweek deal – duck rillette with fig compote, and sourdough bread, followed by oven baked hake, with smoked bacon, cabbage and parmentier potatoes. Two fantastic courses for £16 – the same price as a burger and starter at Nolita Cantina.
Diners at the only other occupied table enjoy the best plate of fish and chips you’ll ever find in New Brighton, and a rib-eye that looks so good we’re a little bit jealous.
There is, incidentally, nothing wrong with a burger at Nolita Cantina. But when we’re over the quarter-pounder fad, and the ‘all the meat you can eat’ chains, and we want to come back to honest home cooking we might find the larder is bare…
“We’ve had our worst couple of weeks ever,” Ross says, adding that, over the past 12 months, they’ve been fighting to keep their heads above water.
“We don’t buy anything we don’t need, and I’m always shopping around for bargains,” adds Ross’s front of house partner Mandy. For the first time ever, we see her struggle to keep a smile on her face. “We work so hard here…”
She points to the fresh flowers in our table vase, “oh, I do buy flowers for the tables. It’s important that we make things nice.”
“In the last two months I’ve really scratched my head, trying to find a way to turn things around. Do I change into a bistro, take a quid off the food by not buying British? I could use South American rib-eye and take two quid off the steaks, but it’s not as good as the steaks we get from local butchers…”
Ross’s relaxed/casual dining is a far cry from Marc Wilkinson’s Fraiche, but make no mistake, the Peninsula Dining Rooms is serious about its food. Serious, but not stuffy.
So, we wonder, if this place is struggling, what does that say about our appetite for decent food?
“These days, it’s all about the bar and grill, the pulled pork and the burger,” Ross says, “and much as we complain about the chain, we all go there. If we didn’t, they wouldn’t be multiplying as fast as they are.”
“Your local restaurant cooks to order, it supports a network of local food producers, and can adapt its dishes to your requirement. But in Marino Lounge, if you don’t want cheese with your plate of patatas bravas it’s tough, that’s the way they get it from their centralised kitchen.”
And yet, throughout the region, neighbourhood restaurants have a battle on their hands.
“I talk to other restaurateurs, and they all say the same thing. But knowing that it’s a shared problem doesn’t help pay the bills,” Ross adds.
“We offer food that’s a little bit different, that’s seasonal and memorable, but it seems people are more prepared to play it safe these days, with comfort food, or food that doesn’t offer any surprises.”
Ross claims that, in uncertain economic times, we still spend, but we do so with caution: we know what we’ll get for £50 at La Tasca. Risking it at a local restaurant? Not today, thanks.
“Visitor numbers to New Brighton may well have increased but they all appear to be concentrated around the new development. The town’s seeing plenty of new trade, but it’s the likes of Wetherspoons that are benefitting, not the local traders,” he says, adding that Wirral Council have so far refused to put up a sign pointing visitors up the road, to explore New Brighton’s local traders.
“We all have a duty to support local without a doubt,” Ross adds, “but it’s also up to us locals to give people what they want. Local businesses love to complain in the media that people aren’t supporting them, but if they can’t give you what you want, of course you should go elsewhere.”
And herein lies the irony: The Peninsula Dining Rooms is head and shoulders above the food offer on the front. But location, habit, an unwillingness to try somewhere new
“I can’t help but thinking ‘are we giving people what we want’?” Ross says, but then he talks about his 1,400-strong mailing list, his regulars (who, he says, still spend, but come less often) and the £4,000 his bottled tap water raised for Claire House last year, and he realises he must be doing something right.
SevenStreets finishes another excellent meal, scooping up the remains of Ross’s fabulous home-made clotted cream ice cream and rose sorbet. We won’t leave it so long next time, we tell him.
“I’d hate to sound like I’m moaning, or blaming others. Of course there’s a place for chains supplying cheap and cheerful food, but they’re not supporting the local economy, and local suppliers are all feeling the pinch. All we’re saying is give us a go, trust us, or you’ll lose us.”
Peninsula Dining Rooms