'Penny-pinching final act' at Bristol restaurant leaves a 'sour taste'

By Mark Taylor

I’m not saying the service at Sergio’s wasn’t good because it was, but it certainly wasn’t worth paying twice for.

My £101.53 bill already included £9.23 for the ‘10 per cent discretionary service charge’ but when I was handed the card machine, it was still asking me whether I wanted to add an additional gratuity.

‘Um…er…I think I just paid £9.23 service according to the bill,’ I whispered, not wanting to sound too much like a cheapskate.

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‘No, that’s the cover charge, sir, would you like to add anything more?’

Well, actually, no I won’t, if that’s alright with you.

I know times are tough in the restaurant world but if the bill already includes a 10 per cent service charge, I don’t think customers should then be asked to pay again. There was no mention of a cover charge on the menu and, to be honest, I can’t think of any other Bristol restaurant applying them.

It’s different in central London, where a few old-school places still charge a couple of quid per person for the pleasure of sitting down and spending a lot of money but not in Bristol.

It’s a shame because this penny-pinching final act left a sour taste at the end of a pretty enjoyable evening at Sergio’s.

I hadn’t eaten in this Frogmore Street restaurant for many years but it hasn’t changed a bit.

Now into its 33rd year, it’s one of a dying breed of traditional trattorias with plenty of reminders of its vintage, right down to the Havana cigar humidor on the bar top.

Bathed in an orange and red glow, there are oilskin tablecloths, frilly lampshades and paper napkins billowing from small wine glasses.

The pepper grinders are the size and girth of traffic bollards, the music is reminiscent of Eurovision circa 1988 and there is a whiff of Old Spice in the air.

Sergio's on Frogmore Street (Dan Regan)

Rewind 33 years and this would have been where pinstriped old boys would arrive for a business lunch and leave after dark.

It’s also one of the last BYO restaurants in the city, allowing diners to bring their own wine (for a £3.50 corkage fee per bottle) - a throwback to the days when many of the older customers had extensive wine cellars and liked to dust off a few choice bottles to have with their spaghetti Bolognese or chicken Milanese.

The blackboard-only menus look pretty much unchanged since the 1990s although prices have certainly risen.

Starters open at £6.95 for a bowl of olives and top out at £10.95 for scallops. The meat and fish dishes are between £18.95 and £21.95.

And then there’s the pasta and risotto main courses kicking off at £12.95 for a simple pasta arrabiata and ending at £18.95 for spaghetti marinara.

These are ambitious prices for a small independent Italian restaurant when there’s so much competition nearby. I ate in an Italian restaurant in Brighton a few days earlier and the prices were a fraction of these.

'Plump' tiger prawns in a foaming hot tub of garlic butter were 'hard to fault' (Bristol Live)

Not that it was preventing people from pouring through the door for the duration of our meal. Most tables were booked and a birthday party of ten Colombians and Venezuelans in the corner certainly added to the ebullient holiday atmosphere.

The food was, by and large, OK. Beef carpaccio (£8.95) would have benefited from being removed from the fridge a few minutes before being plated up - it was cold and pretty tasteless.

A sizzling dish of plump tiger prawns (£9.95) in a foaming hot tub of garlic butter was hard to fault.

Spaghetti meatballs (£15.95) was a generous potion with three golf ball-size orbs of well seasoned meat (it tasted like a beef and pork mix) in a glossy tomato sauce.

Penne Amatriciana at Sergio's (Bristol Live)

Penne Amatriciana was certainly overpriced at £16.95 (although I later spotted that it appeared as £12.95 on the bill) but there was some nice chilli heat to the bacon and onion-studded sauce. Still, 5p short of £17 is punchy for such a frugal student fridge-clearer.

A doorstep-sized tiramisu (£6.95) lacked the usual boozy hit and was served with a pool of cream and a retro physalis sticking out of the top.

'Doorstep-sized' tiramisu at Sergio's (Bristol Live)

The rest of the bill went on drinks, including a half litre of house red at £14.95 a jug - we hadn’t booked so didn’t have our own wine to bring.

And yet despite its flaws, there is an undeniable charm about Sergio’s. After 33 years, they are still going strong, still packing them in and I’m sure I’ll be back.

But I still won’t pay twice for the service, though, however charming it is.

Sergio’s, 1-3 Frogmore Street, Bristol, BS1 5NA. Tel: 0117 9291413.

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