Luke Beardsworth steps in for Denise Evans for the next few weeks to take on our Sunday restaurant reviews
It’s the Sunday of a May Bank Holiday weekend and my eager belly has already led me to my phone the night before to book at a table at a place that had been on my list of places to visit for a good while.
“Yeah, yeah of course we are open and we are expecting to be very busy – I hope you have a lovely time.”
All of this is to say, The Café Bar feels refreshingly old school from the off.
The Café Bar is doing something that you might not necessarily guess from the name alone. This is big plates of seafood, pizza, paella, pasta and more in the sort of room you can’t necessarily picture being there. It’s bright, welcoming and vibrant. Everyone is bloody smiling, customers and staff. When we stop at the Winckley Ale House adjacent for a quick pre-dinner drink the bloke behind the bar tells us he’s never eaten there but ‘the guy who runs it is lovely’.
When we eat here, we’re not really at the stage where it’s suitable to sit out and eat but the courtyard outside is easy to see as an absolute dream in the summer. We sit inside, where it starts steady and is only getting busier by the time we leave, and order. If I’ve ever been made to feel as welcome in a Preston restaurant then I don’t remember it.
Mussels, obviously. Here in a white wine sauce and stacked precariously. If there’s a limit on how many of these I can chuck down then I’ve not hit it yet. The last time I was excited for mussels was when I went to Bistrot Pierre in the city centre and nearly walked out when I discovered they weren’t an option. Only the work my fingers need to do prevents an outright massacre on the bowl. Fiddly food is often frustrating but here it is only satisfying.
Then something really odd happens. Our service for evening tells us that the wait on the starters was unacceptable and brings over one of those pizza garlic breads with cheese. I must stress at this point that we did book anonymously and even if that wasn’t the case we’d be as likely to get chased about by bits of wood as we would get complimentary food. My partner, who enjoyed her courgette starter, manages a slice and the rest is eaten by your reviewer before she returns from the toilet. I’m not even sorry.
Before I talk about my main course I should probably talk about the Greek options on the menu. Gyros and kebabs and the like are offered and nearly tempt me away from my paella. A return visit is in order, especially if the weather is like it has been so far this weekend. Plates are enviously watched arriving at nearby tables as if they are planes and I’m sat next to a wire fence with binoculars.
But it’s paella – seafood and chorizo to be specific – that wins my vote on this day. You can order portions to share (or presumably not share) so I’m glad I went individual given the bonus garlic bread I’d just taken into myself. Two fist-like king prawns sit on top of the dish as if they’re making threats at me but I end up winning that particular fight. The chorizo is chunky rather than sliced and the ratio to the rice is pretty much how I’d like it. My partner was equally pleased with her spinach pasta.
The food, you can probably gather, is very good. And a bill of less than £60 for two starters, two mains and three or four drinks is welcome too. I did try to pay for the garlic bread and explain that it was unnecessary but it was laughed away with a big smile. So, what set The Café Bar apart then? You can get very good food in so many places of Preston. One thing we are not short of is good scran. What this place does is set off the part of your brain where happy memories, of being on holiday, are stored. That’s done more with just exceptional service than it is with their very good food. As I leave, we’re told that we have to come again. At that moment I’m half-annoyed that I need to find other places to eat to keep these weekly reviews running.
Food reviews by Luke Beardsworth are published every Sunday morning. The restaurant did not know we were coming or expect to be reviewed.