It feels very much as though the offering at Backyard, in the former home of CAU on Queens Road, was tailored to its location, rather than defining the concept before hunting down the perfect venue.
It probably wasn’t, of course, but the Clifton Triangle is a hub of student activity, with the University of Bristol just around the corner and the area packed full of studenty clubs and bars (and a little Waitrose too, for the Clifton lot).
Combine fried chicken, plant-based dishes, an industrial-meets-street-art vibe, a pretty quick turnaround and a heavy tech focus, and that’s plenty of the student stereotype boxes ticked.
It’s certainly a striking place, with its neon outdoor signage, its beautiful bar which you encounter as soon as you walk in, and a huge central kitchen in which we counted at least half a dozen chefs, banging out dish after dish in a restaurant that’s decked out in bold, bright wall art from artist and illustrator Anna Higgie, whose work you’ll also find adorning the walls at Oowee on North Street.
Tables are on various levels (although there’s not much space for a highchair, despite there being a huge stack of them at the back of the restaurant), and at many of them you’ll be sitting at a stool with no back – the first hint we got that this is a place where speedy table turnaround is of the essence.
What could be seen as gimmicky is the iPads fixed in place at each table, which are how you place your order. It’s an experience much like you’ll get at any online retailer, with the option to add drinks and dishes – handily organised into sub-menus and with the ability to customise – into your virtual basket. You then double check your order before pressing a button to send it to the kitchen. Their suggestion is to place your order for drinks and any starters first, then starting a new order for mains as and when you’re ready, unless you want everything to arrive at the same time. There’s a button on the tablet that allows you to call a server over too, in case you need any human help.
And the menu? Well, it’s KFC-meets-Nandos. But significantly more exciting, with plenty of global influence and a great deal of choice for veggie and vegan diners. And the portions are huge.
The garlic buttermilk buns starter (£3.50) may not have looked anything special, but they were filthy – in a good way. Served in a scalding hot cast iron dish, the two white buns had been slashed open and filled – and surrounded – with finely chopped tender chicken, a good whack of garlic, melted butter and fresh tarragon – tons and tons of flavour. And if that wasn’t enough, there was a little dish of extra garlicky chickeny butter on the side to mop up with the bread, too: thick, richly infused with tarragon and topped with crispy onion pieces for a bit of a crunch.
We’d potentially misjudged our appetites…or just hadn’t realised just how big the portions would be. Chris’ main was three pieces of bone-in house fried chicken, which came with a choice of one dressing (from a list of six), and one side (from a list of seven) for £9.50. Backyard put a great deal of effort into their fried chicken – brining it for 24 hours to keep it nice and juicy when cooked, before tossing it in their seasoned flour coating and steam frying.
And it worked. The chicken was nice and moist, the coating crisp and seasoned beautifully. His choice of smoky sriracha and lime dressing, served in a separate bowl on the side, wasn’t even needed for the chicken, but was great for dipping the chips.
The chips, though – skin-on and seasoned with a spice rub – were a bit of a letdown. They could have done with being cooked a little longer, and the spice rub gave them a slight musty flavour that was disappointing.
They were the side I’d also chosen, for £2.70, to accompany my Backyard Cheese Royal burger (£7.50): a beast of a burger that featured a buttermilk fried chicken thigh, crispy bacon, shredded lettuce, tomato, pickled onion, harissa mayo, gherkins, cheese and caramelised onions on a seeded bun.
I had to eat it with a knife and fork, it was that huge. No complaints about the chicken, which was nice and tender and smothered with melted cheese, the use of thigh meat giving it much more flavour than if Backyard had used breast. The harissa mayo had less of a kick than I was expecting and the caramelised onions could have done with some slight warming rather than being added fridge-cold, but the thing was a masterpiece, and brilliant value for money.
Paying the bill was easy, too – we just requested it through the tablet, and a member of the team came over to take our card payment (Backyard is a cash-free restaurant).
We’d originally thought the whole iPad thing was a bit of a gimmick…but it makes sense. You can order what you want to your table, when you want, without needing to wait for someone to come over and take your order (although they do periodically come and check if there’s anything you need). You can double check you’ve got your order right and keep track of your bill as it tots up. And it makes the customer experience nice and slick. Plus, from Backyard’s point of view, I’m sure it makes the tickets coming through to the kitchen easier to manage, and potentially also speeds up each sitting, freeing up tables more quickly for new customers without making you feel like you’ve been rushed.
Great value for money, decent food, an enjoyable experience and what seems like to be the ideal location…I’ve a feeling Backyard will be a real hit.