It’s sad that Heathcote’s has finally served its last lemon sole, the real surprise is that it managed to limp on as long as it did.
Why didn’t Simply Heathcote’s work? Was it the food? Not entirely – although we never had a memorable meal in there, the plates were always of a dependable standard. Occasionally, we’d send something back, but more often than not, that was because the plates were dirty, or it arrived too late – in other words, it was the details that let Simply Heathcote’s down. And, no matter how big the name – it can’t carry the weight of a restaurant that’s just coasting. Paul Heathcote, in part, blames the demolition of the bridge across The Strand, leaving, he said, his restaurant in a ‘cul de sac’. We’re not so sure.
The other killer factor? It’s far more intangible, but, in our opinion, one of the most important things of all – Simply Heathcote’s had no atmosphere.
There was, in our experience, always a chilly silence surrounding a lunch, or dinner at Simply Heathcote’s: staff were brisk and attentive, but never exactly warm and effusive. Was Heathcote’s aiming for the formality of fine dining? Maybe – but if so, it should have raised its game (and its plates) accordingly.
In contrast – and tellingly so – Delifonseca is about to open its second branch in the city, in the old Harry Ramsdens/Il Bacino building, along by Liverpool Marina.
If you’re looking for ill portents – and restaurant owners are famously superstitious – this building comes positively bulging with side orders of the stuff. Il Bacino’s deli-cum-trattoria made Simply Heathcote’s look as lively as Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
For Candice Fonseca, and partner Paul, Delifonseca’s definitely a labour of love. And that love infuses the place with conviviality, friendly service (Head waiter, Tom Ford, won ‘Waiter of the Year’ at last year’s Tourism Awards) and excellent plates of food.
Food writer Anne Benson is a food and restaurant consultant for The Mersey Partnership. For her, Delifonseca succeeds for another reason, too:
“It’s a brilliant concept,” she tells SevenStreets, “Of course, they’ve got great a great chef in Martin Cooper, but it’s the sort of place where you go for a coffee, and end up having a meal, and buying food downstairs to take home with you,” she says.
It’s also in a great area: equidistant between the Commercial Quarter and Liverpool ONE – something it won’t have to its advantage in its new location.
“But Delifonseca’s got such a great reputation now, that shouldn’t be an issue. When you get to that level, you become a destination: it doesn’t really matter where you are, within reason. If I was commuting past Brunswick I know I’d stop there to buy things from the deli. Another key thing it’s got in its favour is there’ll be no problem with parking.”
“It is true that Heathcote’s was out on a limb,” Benson says, “But so is Etsu, and that’s a great little restaurant, and is always busy, so that’s a destination too. With Heathcote’s aiming itself as a fine dining establishment, it was always going to be a harder sell. It’s something that Liverpool and Manchester have always struggled with,” she says.
Not so, according to Benson, in Leeds, where a resurgent dining scene (or, more especially, a thriving cafe culture scene) brings in punters from across West Yorkshire. Here, bistros and bar/grills huddle together, work with each other, and create a vibrant, and viable foodie destination.
The North West Development Agency recently held a Food Summit (in Manchester, of course), looking at what we need to do to bring that thriving restaurant scene to our cities too. They shipped in Matthew Fort, Loyd Grossman and the like. We doubt they’ll be hosting many more of them in the near future. Benson attended: “I took down copious notes,” she says, “But I didn’t come away thinking, ‘ah, that’s the way to do it.’”
“There were lots of theories. Leeds works because it has a joined-up approach to promoting its food scene, it’s quite a compact centre, and, most importantly, it’s generated great word of mouth. Chester’s doing the same,” she says, adding that, in a post Trip Advisor world, comments are king. And no-one was really saying anything much about Simply Heathcote’s at all.
Liverpool, too, Benson believes, is showing great pockets of success: notably around Hope Street and, for quick and easy lunches, Liverpool ONE.
“You know that if you wander along Hope Street, you’re going to get a good meal, wherever you stop. Once these areas get established, it gets harder and harder for isolated restaurants to snag passing trade. You have to be really special to continue to attract custom. And Simply Heathcotes, while it was big in the nineties, just seemed to have had its day,” she says.
For others at the NWDA event, it was all about getting in the food guide books.
“There’s a tiny restaurant in Irby, Da Piero, which got into the Which? guide, and, since then, it’s been booked up for weeks in advance. But inviting guides into your establishment – or food critics, for that matter – is a risky business,” Benson says. “It could all so easily backfire.”
Of course, it hasn’t for Oxton’s Michellin-starred Fraiche. It’s booked solid for months.
“People will travel a long way for a great meal,” Benson says, “But most of us, most of the time, just want somewhere we can relax, catch up with friends, and have decent food.”
“Simply Heathcotes set itself up as an ‘event’ restaurant,” she says, “and if you’re going to do that, you have to be consistently excellent. Etsu, and Delifonseca aren’t so hung up about all the fancy trappings. They’re the sort of places you just drop into with friends after work, and find yourself staying the night.”
Maybe that’s the difference. We really don’t want a fuss. We just want a great meal, served with a smile, with our mates. Now, that’s not too much to ask for, is it?