/ 5 February 2010

The hottest squat in town

You step through scarlet curtains into a dining room lit gently with candles and decorated with black-and-white photographs. Attentive waiting staff serve delicious South American dishes to a groovy young clientele.

But this is no ordinary top-end eatery. It is a “rebel restaurant” run by an anarchist collective that opened in a squatted building in Bristol, southwest England, on January 27 and continued to welcome guests for only four days before vanishing into the ether.

The idea is to challenge the normal restaurant model of charging as much as possible for as little as you can get away with and paying staff next to nothing.

Here the collective — professional and amateur chefs, waiters, bar tenders — have come together briefly to run the best restaurant they can for the love of it, begging and borrowing everything from cutlery and pots and pans to chairs and tables. It’s a not-for-profit venture — at the end of every meal guests pay what they think the meal was worth, no more, and profits are ploughed back into the project.

The hottest ticket in Bristol
And it is working. The restaurant is just about the hottest ticket in Bristol. As word spread, it was booked out before the group could send its flyers out.

“I was shocked by the response,” says Lady Hop — not her real name — who is one of the front-of-house staff. “It really seems to have caught people’s imagination. The idea is to work collectively and see what you can create in four nights.”

The maitre d’ explains the structure. “Kitchens and the service industry are very hierarchical set- ups. The classic image is of the head chef barking orders.

“We organise horizontally; there are no leaders among us. A misconception about anarchism is that there are no leaders. I think it’s more about everyone taking a lead in doing certain stuff. This is a shared dream of many people.” The chefs change every night and a new menu is created from scratch.

A patron, Juan, says: “This feels like something unique. There’s a philosophy behind it. It’s done for the love of it. When you go to any place with that kind of approach you feel warmer, there’s a bond. Everyone is giving the best of themselves.”

Back downstairs, Lady Hop says that the group hopes to repeat the exercise somewhere else soon. “This is a testing ground, an experiment. We’ll see how it goes. If it’s a success we could do it again in a few month” time.

“Each building has a different character, each time of year is different. It’s nice not to be constrained to open all the time.”
And she’s off to meet and greet the next batch of guests who, for one night at least, have been tempted away from the chain pizzerias and gastropubs. — © Guardian News & Media 2010