Your starter for 10: What have television’s The Good Life and Stella Street, writer Thomas Hardy, footie legend George Best, rock god Eric Clapton and the wine bar chain All Bar One got in common?
Order yourself a glass of chardonnay if you said Surbiton.
The TV series were set in the London suburb where Hardy lived for a time, Clapton bought his first guitar from a local shop, wee Georgie died there and in 1994 Bass opened its first wine bar called All Bar One in Surbiton.
“Sophisticated chic in the heart of town,” preens the website and although this may be a difficult concept to equate with Surbiton it has certainly worked. There are now almost 50 in the chain, now owned by Mitchells & Butlers.
Sheffield opened two years later on Leopold Street, which is where we are today.
The one thing they always say about All Bar One is that it’s female-friendly so I ask my wife to explain why.
She says it’s the big picture windows you can look through before you go in, the wide mix of customers of all ages (by which she means no seedy-looking men brooding over lone pints as at the Dog & Duck) and you don’t have to queue at the bar. In fact, you don’t even have to go up to it as there is table service.
This last had not occurred to me. Like most men, it is second nature to walk into a pub and up to the bar but for women it’s different.
And the thought has just struck me that I would not walk into the Dog & Duck and order a glass of wine instead of a pint but I would in All Bar One.
In fact, there’s a whole series of social dynamics at work in this wine bar. It’s a cavernous, airy space with not too much decoration except for a large railway station-style clock and a clever mix of seating and tables: small tables, large tables, refectory-style tables, banquettes, chairs, stools and alcoves.
For all these reasons the place is buzzing this early Tuesday evening (which has taken the staff by surprise, says our waitress Jessica) with people fresh from the office. We count at least three birthdays and there’s a big buffet going on at the other end.
Wine is as much the drink of choice as beer or lager, if not more (they also do cocktails) with 70 different bottles here. If you’re not sure what to drink with what then check out the tasting notes on the bar’s website.
The food is relaxed and easy going, the sort you can eat without paying too much attention to while you chat. And people do: it’s so noisy, in a lively way, that you can’t hear the music on the speakers, a good thing in my book.
The evening menu is a mix of tapas, salads, burgers, pad thai, risotto and where would we be without good old fish and chips?
We decide on a couple of tapas when my wife discovers in the corner of the menu an offer which gives you two tapas and a bottle of selected wine for £15 on Tuesdays only. You can ‘upgrade’ the bottle for a fiver.
She plumps for rose and it’s Coopers Select (normally £13.50), hardly memorable but does the job on a warm evening, paired with bright yellow salt and pepper calamari (normally £5) which look like bootlaces and fried gnocchi (normally £4.75).
The latter are addictive, soft and spongy with a crisp exterior, which taste fine with a scattering of parmesan and even better when dunked in the squid’s sweet chilli dip.
I’m having the lamb and coriander burger (£9.50) to follow because it has been the most popular dish on the All Bar One menu since Surbiton days and the recipe has remained unchanged.
I’ve eaten it before but never had to think about it until now. The pattie is a decent size, thick and juicy, and you can taste the coriander. The meat is not finely minced but still left a little chunky for added mouthfeel.
The bun’s fine, light with a little bite, and there’s a slice of gherkin, pot of tzatziki (yoghurt and cucumber) and coleslaw for garnish with skinny chips. It’s worth a trip to All Bar One for the burger alone.
Can’t quite say that about my wife’s sea bass (12.50), where no attempt had been made to crisp the skin on the two fillets but the fish tasted lively enough with an accompaniment of paella-style rice.
For dessert we fancy the trio of mousse but we can’t have them because only head chef Lee Hammond makes them and he’s not on duty. That explains the flabby fish.
We settle for Eton Mess (£4.75), served like a knickerbocker glory, and it turns out to be the best we’ve had.
As a chain, All Bar One provides a consistently good experience in food, drink and atmosphere – and the longest walk to the loo in Sheffield.
With breads and coffee the bill for dinner was £48.50.