With its roots firmly placed in Sussex, where the brand launched, the original store in Lewes has become something of a pilgrimage for many a Bill’s-lover. We head to their Eastbourne branch for dinner…
So far as heritage in Lewes goes, Bills is in good company. Across the street is the high street entrance-come-souvenir-gift-shop of the vast Harvey’s empire, which has a huge presence in the town. One of their pubs shares a wall with the Bill’s restaurant too (which has grown into the shop next door—presumably to house the Bill’s cook book, making up additional retail stock), sitting just behind the establishment, on the water.
Anyway, a lot has happened within the (now significantly larger) Bill’s empire, and not just in the shape of a recipe book. The chain has grown beyond its original Sussex footprint and you can now find almost 20 of them across London; 23 in the South East and another 30 across the rest of the UK. That’s significant growth by any standard and, by the team’s own admission, after a slow expansion initially: “We had to consider what would scale and what wouldn’t to start with.” They’ve certainly made up for lost
Having visited Bill’s a number of times in its earlier years, I’ve been—some might say—privileged to have experience of where the entire buzz came from in the first place. So, having booked a table for two in one of the more recently opened venues in sunny Eastbourne, I hoped to find out where the chain had arrived after all those years of independence and refinement along the way.
This branch of Bill’s opened its doors back on the 28th April 2015 and took the place of the old Terminus pub – a huge footprint of a building – and was previously owned by none other than the aforementioned Harvey’s. The pub game had diminished to a point where such a large boozer just wasn’t necessary anymore. At least, that’s how it appeared when we learned of the takeover and subsequent refurbishment, which saw the old bar disappear (to be fair, it did used to occupy most of the ground floor), and a complete re-dress.
My fiancée and I arrived early, at 6:30—to give us time ahead of our booking to watch the new Bond film, Spectre, just around the corner in the small-yet-characterful Curzon cinema. As we expected, the place was fairly quiet. We were shown to a table and quickly served a glass of lightly sparkling white (for her) and a generous (not to mention, rather strong) bottle of Merrydown cider for me. Merrydown Cider, of course, being another brand originating in Sussex.
So far as the food order is concerned, it was really quite good. I mean, it wasn’t fine dining by any stretch, but if you were to compare it to ‘other’ high street mainstays, such as Zizzi, Pizza Express, Nando’s etc., it fairs well. Taking the swift service and standardised look and feel of the menu items that you would expect from a chain establishment, and improving the quality of the ingredients somewhat, seems to be the key to the success of the Bill’s ‘new-co’ venture. Gone are the flourishes of uniqueness that defined the small business that created the buzz all those years ago; replaced with quirky platters, branded everything and shabby-chic dressing throughout.
I had a plate of ribs—way too much and very tasty—whilst my partner had the butter chicken dish—a coated chicken breast, served in a brioche bun and served with sweet potato fries.
None of this is particularly negative. I realise that to grow to 73 branches, you have to standardise the process, and to retain any soul whatsoever is a tough call. In actual fact, they seem to have done well.
Frankly, if I’m looking to visit a chain restaurant for the convenience, speed and to know what I’m going to get each time, I’d rather Bill’s than most (if not all) of the other options on the high street.
Star rating: 3.5 out of 5