Rafters’ team dip more than a toe in the Riverside

Alistair (L) and Tom: new boys at Ashford

ALISTAIR Myers was mixing negroni cocktails at Rafters when he got a call from a free-spending customer. It wasn’t to book a table but a new chapter in his career.

How would he like to upsticks and run another restaurant? asked care home boss John Hill of Hassop Hall.

“I said there was no way we could do it,” recalls Alistair, who runs the high class guidebook-listed Sheffield restaurant with chef Tom Lawson.

Flash foward some time later and he and Tom are being shown around the Grade II listed Riverside hotel and restaurant on the banks of the River Wye at picturesque Ashford-in-the-Water.

“By then it was no way we could NOT do it,” enthuses Alistair, aged 36.

And so on from November, Covid-permitting, the pait will reopen the building as Rafters at the Riverside, a restaurant with rooms. There are 14 bedrooms, a restaurant seating around 30-36, a smaller Range Room for 14 (featuring an old cooking range) and a private dining room for a dozen guests.

The old Riverside, owned by Penelope Thornton and once a feature of the food guides, had closed in March and was on the market for £1.6 million.

Ironically neither John Hill nor his wife Alex had visted Riverside before deciding to buy it, unlike Hassop Hall, which they have converted back from a hotel to a swanky private residence. “We celebrated our wedding anniversary there,” says Alex.

The Riverside: On the market at £1.6 million

She will be heading up the renovation and I caught her knee deep in paint charts. With a background in design, she’s already done a similar job at Hassop. The paint was Farrow and Ball, of course.

With her youngest child now at school, she was looking around for a project. “I like to keep myself busy,” she says.

The couple are regular diners at Rafters in Oakbrook Road. “We have been a few times and it is a little gem. We absolutely love the food,” adds Alex, who recommends the place to their friends.

Now she and John will have another recommendation up their sleeves, Rafters at Riverside. But expect the menu to be a little different. Rafters has long run a set tasting menu. Alistair and Tom, aged 29, think their North Derbyshire customers will prefer a three course menu.

“Tom’s putting together the new menu and there will be a bloody good Sunday lunch,” says Alistair. Fingers are being crossed about Covid-19 but bookings are already being taken.

Oernight guests can expect to pay £350-£390 for dinner, bed and breakfast.

The biggest pitfall in catering is when a successful restaurant expands: how to keep those elements which have made it a hit in the first place. So will Alistair and Tom be stretching themselves too far?

They think they’ve left a strong team in charge in Sheffield. “Ben Ward will be front of house at Rafters. He’s spent five years with us, rising from pot washer to manager. And sous chef Dan Conlon, who came from Sheffield College, has been promoted to head chef,” adds Alistair.

Riverside looks romantic at night

For the Hills this is another big venture. And just as when they bought Hassop, there were also rumours locally that Riverside was to be another care home. The gossips were wrong again.

Meanwhile, back at Hassop, the family are not shy of showing the world how they are getting on, as can be seen on the Instagram site Hassop Interiors. “Our kitchen is now finished” (the couple had been using the Butler’s Pantry, as you do)” but everything else has come to a standstill, says Alex.

However they do wish people would stop driving through the gates to have a gawp as their children play on the driveway. There’s a plea to this effect on Instagram.

Meanwhile Tom and Alistair have a big task on their hands. And Alistair may well be reflecting what might have happened if he had taken the advice of that teacher who, hearing of his interest in hospitality, advised him to get a proper job!

John and Alex Hill


It’s lockdown – but is it showdown for city’s chefs?


Cooking along to Jamie Bosworth’s Facebook show

EVEN before the government turned the key on the nation’s restaurants Marco Giove had acted. Rather than take out tables to preserve social distancing he closed the fine dining business he has run for the last 20 years from a former police station in Archer Road, Sheffield.

And he turned into a one-man-and-his-family ‘Deliveroo’ service, cooking up pizza, pasta and parmigiani for customers who were dining in rather than dining out.

“When Boris came on the television we shut almost immediately because I knew people were going to stop visiting  restaurants,” says Marco.

All across Sheffield restaurants are having to rethink their business models. Some, like the Summer House, on Abbeydale Road South, offered a takeaway service and were “overwhelmed by demand.” But they had to abandon it as the sheer logistics of working and finding staff became too difficult.

So did Michelin-listed Rafters, on Oakbrook Road. Tables were taken out and takeaways sold but the moment social distancing came in they knew it it was time to stop, says front-of-house Alistair Myers, co-owner with talented chef Tom Lawson.

The pair have kept their core team of 12 on furlough – the government money came within three weeks – and are using the time wisely, devising new menus and drinks (Alistair has one made from pineapple skins) and cultivating the restaurant allotment.

They realise keeping the talent in the restaurant is as important as keeping a loyal following in this high-end sector of the business. Alistair  thinks the accent is going to be even more on local produce when things return – but that will be the crunch time. “There will be casualties, more when we are eventually allowed to re-open when there is no government support. The ones which will survive will be those with a loyal following.”

Others, like the guide book listed No Name Bistro, abandoned fancy meals and offered bangers and mash (although with some style) to NHS and other key workers on the Coronavirus front line.

Others tried to keep a presence on social media so they would not be forgotten if and when their doors reopen. At the George Hotel, Hathersage, where new head chef Carl Riley had hardly time to warm up the ovens after arriving, cocktail recipes such as the racy Porn Star Martini have been posted online.


A customer enjoys a meal at home from Marco@Milano

Over at Thyme in Broomhill, Sheffield, there are plans to put dishes from its 15 year old recipe book online.

But few can have made a bigger splash than Jamie Bosworth. No stranger to the cookery demo – he’s a regular fixture on BBC Radio Sheffield – he streamed a live show on Facebook which has had well over 7,000 views.

“I try and cook simple, easy dishes for three course meals using store cupboard ingredients with plugs for local producers,” says Jamie, who was joined for the second by vocalist daughter Katie for the second,  60 minute cook-a-long. “I could catch up at the stove while Katie sang.”

It was a family affair with wife Jayne holding the camera for a Floyd-esque show, with guest appearances from son, cat and dog.

Jamie has owned and run a clutch of top restaurants and is now a development chef who “keeps his hand in” with regular pop-up bistro evenings at the Rendezvous coffee shop, Totley.

“I had to cancel the last two because of Coronavirus so there’s going to be one hell of a night when we re-open.”

Meanwhile, back at Marco@Milano  Marco Giove, with a helper, is busy prepping orders for deliveries. His partner and her son help take the food to the right doorsteps. To emphasise the new informality customers are encouraged to send in photos of themselves enjoying a Marco meal.

But the current crisis has prompted him to take a different direction, one he has been contemplating for a while. “This restaurant will be one of the last to go back. I am going to change it completely, away from fine dining to something more relaxed with a deli and coffee shop for all the family,” he says.

There is no doubt the crisis has been a big jolt for the city’s restaurants. Some will fall by the wayside. The survivors may take other directions. But it has given restaurateurs and chefs the time to talk to each other and perhaps help each other out.

As the government keeps saying, we really are all  in this together – restaurants and customers alike.

*If you have a coronavirus story or views on the situation do get in touch.


Tom Lawson ( left) and Alistair Myers in lighter mood

Has the fish knife had its chips?

OTT perhaps but does fish cutlery still have a place on the table?

I thought I was being posh when I proudly acquired a set of six Sheffield-made fish knives and forks in an antiques centre but now I know I am just common. Or should that be vulgar? Or affected? Like most things, it all depends of timing.

When they first appeared in the late 1700s they would have been made of silver, to stop the fish and vinegar reacting with the metal. By the mid-Nineteenth Century they were in every middle class home – and that was their downfall. Come the 1920s and with the invention of stainless steel almost everyone could afford a set. It was soon noticed.

The poet John Betjeman sneered at the nouveau riche in his poem, How To Get On in Society, which begins: “Phone for the fish knives Norman,”* in which he pokes fun at them and the lower middle classes for aping their betters.

At one time if you were ordering fish in a restaurant you would be given fish cutlery as a matter of course. “Are you having the fish, sir?” the waiter would purr, removing your ordinary cutlery and replacing it with a fish knife and fork. But it doesn’t seem to happen so much now – or perhaps I am not going to enough posh restaurants.

I had these thoughts on a visit to the top-rated Rafters restaurant on Oakbrook Road, Sheffield, and noticed the locally made Carrs Silver fish knives and forks set out for my wife’s loin of cod with a crab beignet and tarragon-spiked gnocchi. I’m sure it tasted better for the right eating implements!

Rafters co-owner Alistair Myers reckons his is one of the few restaurants still with fish knives. “We do it because it is the correct and proper way. It’s important from the service point of view. Some of the younger staff ask ‘what is this?’ but we believe in keeping the art of service alive. After all, you wouldn’t eat soup with a dessert spoon, would you?”

No one is quite sure why the fish knife with the curly-wurly blade is as it is. There is no sharp edge but then you don’t need one to cut through fish which is why they can be made in solid silver). The point could remove small bones and the wide flat blade is an aid in filleting fish off the bone but if you have ever watched an old-fashioned waiter doing the same job he will use two forks.

I love the fish knife (the fork is little different if slightly more ornamental than its cutlery cousin) because it is a leftover from its Victorian heyday. Manufacturers listed increasingly obscure items in their catalogues to drum up business, aimed at those who wanted ’cutlery bling,’ as it we might call it today. A Victorian place setting could be a bewilderingly complicated-looking arrangement, guaranteed to catch out those lower down the social strata.


Carrs’ fish cutlery at Rafters

One cutlery manufacturer listed around 150 different items of flatware, as it is called in the trade, but that is nothing compared to Carrs, based on the Holbrook Industrial Estate near Crystal Peaks, with187 pieces, according to managing director Richard Carr, who supplies to the trade and retail. Not that he expects a customer to buy them all. “We have a bespoke place setting of 38 different eating pieces and let chefs decide their own setting based upon what food they serve,” he says.

He has seen a decline in fish knives and forks, certainly on the retail side. “It’s becoming less fashionable with the more casual dining style. If I go to eat at friends’ houses and have fish, invariably they will use normal cutlery.” (According to a survey for Debenhams in 2009 28 per cent of people didn’t have fish knives and could not see the point.)

Richard’s not yet been tempted to carry a spare set in his back pocket but he does use them at home. I confess I get them out for fish and chips from the chippie!

He still supplies fish cutlery to restaurants but this tends to be for places at the top end of the market, such as Rafters. And wealthy Arabs, who buy the whole range.

Sales of fish knives may have declined but Richard is sanguine, like an angler who knows he will one day catch his trout. “If we look five years into the future things (may) come full circle.” Take, for example, pastry forks. Sales have taken off with the boom in afternoon teas and tearooms.

I ask which items of his cutlery are the most obscure and he offers the asparagus tongs (popular in the Middle East) and the snail fork. Of course, if you really want to be super blingy, there’s the silver chip fork. And Americans like the spork, a cross between spoon and fork.

There can be no doubt what Betjeman would have said about that!


*Betjeman uses words then thought common: phone, for telephone; Norman, as a name; fish knives, as a product.


Richard Carr, go-to man for a silver chip fork



Why ‘No Shows’ are a no-no


No shows mean no money at the Samuel Fox

The other day James Duckett, chef-patron of the Samuel Fox Inn at Bradwell tweeted a picture of two empty tables at his North Derbyshire pub with the caption: “Two tables booked for Saturday night. #Noshow, no answering of phones, and we turned down other diners because of them! #Exasperating.”

It was, if anything, understatement. No shows mean loss of profit and can turn a busy evening into one which barely makes money. The Fox cannot rely on that much passing trade come 8pm on a dark Saturday night in the middle of the countryside. It’s estimated that no shows cost British restaurants up to £16 billion a year, although that does seem rather high.

That tweet struck a chord with me because in more than 25 years writing about food and restaurants for the Sheffield Star I often wrote stories castigating this bad practice. It seemed to come and go in waves. Often two couples would decide to go out but couldn’t agree on the restaurant. Both would book different places and make their minds up on the day.

Others were simply ignorant, very possibly not realising the financial damage they cause. Stung by a series of no shows, brothers Wayne and Jamie Bosworth, who then ran Rafters restaurant, waited until after closing time before ringing the number of one customer who failed to materialise. . “We said should we send the staff home yet?” remembers Jamie. “They were very apologetic.”

A couple of years ago, when reviewing, I rang the former Barretts Bistro at Hutcliffe Wood to book and was asked for my debit card details: number, name and security code. As well as that, they deducted a tenner per person from my card and would set that against the bill. I was most put out because I was planning a BYO dinner with garlic mushrooms and cheese soufflé, not a swanky suite at a five star hotel.

They had introduced the policy because in the space of a short time the tiny bistro had lost two tables of six and one of eight while other tables of four and six turned up as twos, said boss James Barrett.

Restaurants have to be careful. This sort of thing can put people off. So far, no one round here has followed the policy of Michelin three star Hong Kong restaurant Sushi Shikon by fining customers for cancelling, depending on how short a time they give (up to £350 per person). And more if fewer people turn up than booked!

Nor have British restaurants followed Copenhagen’s Noma where staff posted YouTube videos mocking absent customers. And one Australian restaurant took to naming and shaming people who failed to show.

Most restaurants are not high powered enough to demand customers book through an online agency or ask for as many details as Barretts Bistro demanded. Things should be taken on trust. Taking a mobile number is no guarantee, as James found. You simply programme the restaurant’s number into your phone and when the name flashes up, don’t answer. Perhaps he ought to ring on another line!

It is also, sadly, one way in which rivals can sabotage a business.

Taking a number can work both ways. Once, setting out to review a Sunday lunch, I was ten minutes into my journey when my mobile rang. It was the pub. The kitchen wiring had blown up. They wanted to tell me the best they could offer was sandwiches!

A star has fallen

Tessa Bramley, chef-patron of the Old Vicarage

Tessa Bramley, chef-patron of the Old Vicarage

So the Old Vicarage at Ridgeway is one of the unlucky 13 in Britain which has lost the Michelin star, held since 1998 and the only one in Sheffield. It made front page news in the Sheffield Telegraph. But how much does it really matter?

True, it must be a bitter disappointment to chef-patron Tessa Bramley and her long-term chef Nathan Smith, who has been there for every starry year. They are most probably the victim of changing fashions rather than falling standards because reviews of the food have been mostly good or excellent although service is reportedly wobbly.

Chefs at the top of their profession crave stars but they probably mean more in terms of kudos with their fellow chefs than to the average diner. Relatively few people read the Michelin Guide, certainly not in comparison to the Good Food Guide and Hardens, compiled from public reports rather than food inspectors.

It may be difficult to the public to appreciate how much stars mean to chefs and how they feel when they lose them. French chef Bernard Loiseau shot himself in 2003 when he thought, wrongly, he had lost one of his three stars at the Cote d’Or in Saulieu. I have eaten there, sat next to his widow Dominique, and enjoyed the signature dish of frogs legs, garlic and parsley. Gordon Ramsay is said to have wept when he lost two stars at his New York restaurant, The London.

On the other hand, Skye Gyngell handed back her star at her café in a garden centre, Petersham Nurseries, because diners drawn there by the publicity expected glitzier surroundings. And in Sheffield Marcus Lane, who then owned Rafters, felt his Bib Gourmand (just below a star) put undue pressure on the kitchen and asked not to be considered the following year.

There is no doubt that winning a star brings customers. But that can mean more staff and more costs in keeping up the standards – and pricier food to match. Conversely, losing can cost. Forbes magazine quotes studies showing that dropping a star can halve sales. More than one restaurant has won a star and gone bust. There’s another factor. Michelin stars tend to turn restaurants into pricy, over-formal, reverential temples of food where people speak in hushed voices when eating should be a lively, gregarious, convivial and sensuous experience.

It is some years since I have eaten at the Old Vic, and then we had the night to ourselves, for my editor at the Sheffield Star felt few readers would be tempted by £40 a head lunches and £75 dinners. But it has been consistently good since I first went there (just six meals into my reviewing career!) shortly after it entered the Good Food Guide 27 years ago.

I have even cooked there. Once, for a story, I was a commis chef for the night (the lowest of the low) cooking samphire and vegetables to go with an amuse of cods cheeks. Tessa, on the pass, sent one of my plates back three times before judging it good enough. She was a kind but strict taskmistress. I was terrified there might be a food critic in that night!

Like any good restaurant, stories about the Old Vic abound. In the early days Tessa’s son Andrew, nicknamed ‘Lurch,’ would open the restaurant door (you rang the bell) and look you up and down as if to judge your worth. There is the story, probably apocryphal, of the loud pub landlord out dining who asked for a bitter to which the reply was: “Would that be bitter lemon or Angostura, sir?”

My favourite is of the late Michael Winner, reviewing for the Sunday Times, who on visiting the gents noticed a bowl of strawberries. He reached to pick one then wondered about the personal hygiene of previous visitors and desisted. Winner wickedly made much of this in his report, taking the wee-wee so to speak, but gave a favourable review.

For the Old Vic, losing that star may be the end of an era but it is not the end of the world.

The Old Vicarage

The Old Vicarage

Too posh for BYO?

Is this your bottle or the restaurant's?

Is this your bottle or the restaurant’s?

Imagine if you could go to a posh restaurant with your own decent bottle of wine and be greeted with a big smile instead of being shown the door? It might not happen now but it did in Sheffield once. Nearly all the top restaurants ran BYO and no one turned a hair.

Well, the trade press did as it was so unusual. Hotel and Caterer ran a story on it. Of course there were caveats: it only applied weekdays, not weekends, and you were expected to pay corkage.

It started in the mid-Nineties when Wayne Bosworth and his brother Jamie ran Rafters on Oakbrook Road to get bums on seats. Unlike other top restaurants Rafters opened on Mondays, not the most popular day of the week, closed Tuesday and re-opened on Wednesday. Monday opening (and BYO) was partly to compensate for not opening Tuesday, the day their beloved Blades often had a midweek home game at Bramall Lane!

With Rafters doing it, Wayne’s mate Cary Brown, then at Carriages (now Peppercorn) on Abbeydale Road South, felt he had to follow suit. Richard Smith, running what was then Smith’s of Sheffield, later Thyme, at Crosspool, wasn’t best pleased either but he did it. You could even take a bottle midweek to super-posh Greenhead House, as I recall.

The practice went on for a decade or so and then fizzled out, although you can still bring a bottle to Marco@Milano on Archer Road in the week. But I think the city’s upmarket venues are missing an opportunity. You can also BYO at No Name in Crookes, otherwise you’ll be thirsty.

The reason BYO is popular with diners is the heavy mark up on wines in restaurants, at least 250 per cent. We don’t normally volunteer to pay three or four times the price for a product we can get in the shops, so why with restaurants?

With some, of course, that is where they make the money rather than the food, or at least Heston Blumenthal claims. And the better places do have wines you can’t buy easily. I don’t object to a corkage charge, provided it is reasonable, because that pays for the glasses, the cleaning and the disposing of the empties.

But if you are keen on the right wine with food how easy is it to choose a bottle when two people are eating on opposite sides of the menu: red or white meat, heavily spiced or not? How often do you see half bottles on offer?

I used to run a regular feature on the Sheffield Star’s food pages listing the BYO places available and the corkage charge. Apart from the upmarket restaurants, the others listed were little bistros, Asian, Italian and Chinese.

For the restaurant BYO saves tying money up in stock. For the diner it means not having to fork out £15 for a bottle of house you know only cost the restaurant a fiver, if that. To a large extent it’s wine snobbery, the insistence that certain bottles go better with certain kinds of food, which keeps a wine list going.

Well of course that’s right but there are precious few occasions where the wrong wine will spoil the food, although the wrong food can spoil the wine! If I go to a restaurant it’s the food which is my first choice. If I’m going for the wine I’ll pick a wine bar. That’s what the Italians do with enotecas: great choice of wine, simple platters of cheeses and meats to go with them. Now how about that over here?

Incidentally, you can hardly complain about the wine if you BYO but I did once. I bought a bottle in France and took it to Rafters in Bosworth brothers days. It was awful – the wine not the food. So I bought a bottle from the restaurant!