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Bristol Post
Bristol Post
Louisa Streeting

Poco at 10: The Bristol tapas bar in Stokes Croft celebrating local ingredients

On the corner of Jamaica Street overlooking Turbo Island is the unassuming tapas bar Poco. It's a place without too many frills that instantly makes you feel welcome when you step foot inside - the open kitchen forms the heart of the restaurant, the back wall lined with homemade preserves and other concoctions feels homely.

Jen Best and Ben Pryor own Poco alongside eco-chef and established author, Tom Hunt, who they both described as a guiding influence on the direction of the business. What was initially born out of a series of festival cafes serving up slow-roasts and barbecued lobster led them to their restaurant in Stokes Croft in the autumn of 2011, championing seasonality and local ingredients.

Poco covers around 36 diners in total and is open every day of the week fronted by their general manager Barry Symonds with a team of 17 in total. Jen, Ben and Tom were offered advice early on from one of the founders of Thali Cafe, Jim Pizer, who vouched for the seven-day framework despite restaurants traditionally having a break near the beginning of the week.

Read more: Bristol bubble tea business that started in a mobile van celebrates tenth birthday

“They found when they went from being open five or six days to seven days a week you saw an increase in trade, as long as you’re not having to work seven days yourself,” explained co-partner Ben Pryor. Years ago they were once open from 9am until 11pm seven days a week, which they’ve changed to just dinner service with lunch added in at the weekend.

What sets them apart from other small plates restaurants is the meticulously-crafted menu, which looms over the diners on a chalkboard wall. Visitors can choose from their vegetarian set menu Root to Fruit or meat and fish dishes in Nose to Tail. When I dined there recently the kitchen had run out of one dish, the pig head terrine, which was seamlessly swapped in for a plate of whitebait.

Ian Clark is the brains behind the incredible menu (Paul Gillis/Reach PLC)

Head chef Ian Clark is the brainchild behind the dishes - and has been for the past four years - having formed robust relationships with local suppliers of the likes of Bristol Loaf and Hugo's Greengrocers. The menu flows with the seasons allowing the kitchen to be creative and keep things fresh, Jen explained. Some Poco dishes remain staples while others rotate, which allows Ian to keep creative.

“Having that flexibility as well and being able to change things day to day means that he can react if he has a glut of things,” Ben added. This relationship with the supplier allows Ian to form a first-class menu that also spins an accurate narrative that sells a story of the Bristol region.

Ben, Jen and Tom have never really been fixated on attaining a Michelin star as a mark of their successes. Although, with the introduction of the Michelin Green Star awarded for culinary excellence with outstanding eco-friendly commitments, they said they might be persuaded otherwise.

Some of their many homemade preserves and ingredients (Paul Gillis/Reach PLC)

Ben said: “I'd love to go for it now, but historically, I didn't feel like that was our path. Pushing the limits of what we could do in sustainability and like through the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) - that was us pushing the limits of what we were doing.”

Having been members of the SRA meant they were required previously permitted to audit the business annually to unpick the ethics of their menu, energy usage and their treatment of their staff, for example. Poco’s efforts have been rewarded in the past having won the top prize for the best sustainable restaurant of the year three times.

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While they remain “alert” rather than anxious over the more recent threats to the economy, Ben said it’s hard not to think about the impact of the restaurant industry while the cost of living crisis deepens.

Jen added: “I have three different levels. Fine. Not so fine. And terrible. Obviously, there was hope. But I think off the back of that it's just made us have a certain lens of awareness.”

They met in the festival circuit more than a decade ago (Paul Gillis/Reach PLC)

“Awareness, and being grateful for stability while you have it when you can become unstable,” he agreed. Jen and Ben have an evident synergy in their way of thinking. Paired with the passion and ethos of co-partner Tom allows their Bristol tapas bar to continue to thrive.

This awareness has not come without ebbs and flows along the way. They expanded Poco back in 2015 and opened up a London site in east London, but it closed after two years.

Ben said he often gets asked “what’s next” - but their experience with the east London site taught them expansion doesn’t always equal success. It has made them feel even more appreciative of what the whole team has created in Bristol.

“Coming back here and doing what we were already doing which was having an amazing tight-knit, small community and small space, you can really get it the way you want it. You’re not stretched thin and you’re not compromising. It is beautiful,” he said.

What's more, the restaurant may also face other challenges with growing concerns of gentrification in Stokes Croft. Small plate-style restaurants have snowballed in recent years - Nadu and Jamaica Street Stores are more recent additions - as business owners are drawn in by more affordable rent prices.

They're located at the end of Jamaica Street right next to Turbo Island (Paul Gillis/Reach PLC)

Ben said they had witnessed people try and fail to change the fabric of the area of the past decade, although it is a threat that never really goes away. He hopes the community services in this area will continue to remain. “The reality is a lot of the key services for people struggling in society - people struggling with addiction, homelessness - are in this area.”

One of the restaurant’s main focuses is making what they do accessible. The team is now focused on growing their strong relationships in Bristol with restaurants and organisations which align with their own core beliefs rather than expanding again.

”We’re hopefully going to be doing a collaboration with a community farm at the end of August on the land, celebrating sustainable agriculture and the foundations that the community farm built there,” said Jen. “It will highlight the commonalities between us and the reasons why we work so well together. We love storytelling around food and having that creative process for our team.”

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