Lost in Swindon?

[Opinion]

// Best venues to visit in Swindon, according to me //

I moved back to Swindon in October 2015 and I won’t lie I’ve been a hermit for most of it, and/or retreated back to London for long weekends. Naturally a small town cannot realistically compete against the capital city, but I often find myself spending most of my time on the GWR.

Now despite my reservations, I eventually decided to try and not act like a petulant child and take a wonder to see what improvements my small town had or hadn’t made since my return.

// My Swindon go-tos //

I can’t lie, I was not exactly psyched about trying to adjust back into Swindon – the town’s market for eateries is not enticing compared to say Cirencester or Bristol, but I had heard of some new competitors up in Old Town which instilled some confidence and curiosity.

// Helen Browning’s Chop House //

Where: 19-21 Wood St

I had been excitedly anticipating my visit here – I’d heard great reviews and, for me, it’s reputation alone had already outdone the greasy Spoons and influx of restaurant chains at Regents Circus.

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The main thing that is swiftly brought to your attention is that the produce is sourced organically, and the meat itself is brought in from Helen’s farm Eastbrook which is only 6 miles away from Swindon. Unlike the Spoons and Greene Kings, the Chop House does not advertise cheap processed meals, it is instead not shy of high quality and fresh dishes, which have been put together thoughtfully. I’d seriously recommend going in for brunch!

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// Balula’s Delicatessen //

Where: 9 Wood St

Just a few doors down from the Chop House is Swindon’s very own Deli come cafe. I had always noticed Balula’s but hadn’t ventured in until now – I was full from brunch but fancied a peruse and some inspiration for dinner.

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I was pleasantly surprised as I hadn’t realised there was a large dining area, or “coffee lounge”, and so much on offer to purchase at the counter. Balula’s reminds me of the cafes in Cirencester; independent, charming, and homemade. Unlike many of the coffee chains in Swindon’s down town, the cakes don’t look processed or as though they have been sat out for too long.

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As well as sweet treats and a lunch menu, Bulula’s also offers fresh meats, cheeses, fruit, and veg. I myself purchased some chorizo for my favourite scrambled eggs and a risotto dish – they were both spectacular.

// BAILA Coffee & Vinyl //

Where: 85 Victoria Rd

My favourite coffee shop in town has always been Darkroom Espresso, but I’ve now found a fantastic surrogate. Edgy, trendy, and contemporary – this has been a much needed establishment for Swindon’s young and alternative culture.

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Although I like to be alone when I get my writing done, I also like to be in a venue with some atmosphere – whether I want a flat white in the morning, or an Aperol Spritz in the evening, this progressive cafe come bar offers me both. BAILA also hosts a modest sized record collection to browse and purchase from. Furthermore come day or night there is always great music to be heard here, and that’s not just on vinyl – it also accommodates live music and DJs.

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*Note: BAILA has been refurbished rendering my above image outdated – I prefer the white walls though*

// Los Gatos //

Where: 1-3 Devizes Rd

I would strongly advise booking in advance (excluding weekends) when planning a visit to Swindon’s Tapas hotspot – it is a gem that consistently supplies high quality Spanish cuisine. Los Gatos is also a great alternative to the popular pub dining scene, boasting an array of delicious dishes which are designed and intended to be shared. As expected from Tapas, there is an impressive range of dishes on offer which accommodate meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans – the menu has been crafted and influenced by the owners’ travels in Spain.

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So far I’ve only visited of an evening, but each time I have remained pleasantly greeted by a buzzing yet intimate atmosphere. Furthermore there’s a smooth aura generated amongst the guests and staff, and it’s probably because this popular venue delivers on excellent value for your money leaving satisfaction levels high. I’ll certainly be returning soon to also check out the Los Gatos Paella Sunday specials!

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// Old Town Thai //

Where: 23 Wood St

Swindon is full of greasy Asian “restaurants”, so shamefully I was quite reluctant to give Old Town Thai a go, but I am pleased to conclude that I’m so glad I did. The food here is delightfully fresh tasting and not shy of flavour or authenticity – we ventured in as a group of three and because we were tempted by so much of the menu we ordered a selection to share (a manoeuvre I’d recommend).

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I feel I must also comment that the staff here are so accommodating and ready to take fire from guests who don’t really know much about Thai food – this enabled us to choose accordingly, leaving us extremely pleased. If you yourself are not familiar with Thai food, I would highly recommend opting for the classic Pad Thai, because here they guarantee an exemplary first time try.

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What’s more is that the venue itself is cushy, decorated with delightful Thai treats like mini Buddhas and cultural wall art.

// Give them a go //

If you’re like me and have unfortunately encountered some shaky experiences in Swindon, I hope I have been able to comfort you with some faith and enthusiasm (as well as alternatives to barricading yourself in at home). I am confident in suggesting you try out some of my selected favourites should you find yourself in the local area.

Essentially the rule is to stay up town and avoid the restaurant chains like our infamous teenage pregnancy trend – apparently this is now under control, but unfortunately the same cannot be said for our apparent love of unimpressive cheap eats. Although I have no intention of settling in Swindon, I’m glad that for the time that I am here the town is showing signs of progression.

// If you take a chance on some of my recommendations, I’d love to hear your thoughts! //

Review: The Hop Inn

// Where: 7 Devizes Road, Old Town, Swindon //

It’s a casual Sunday afternoon in Swindon, and to my surprise, a lovely one at that. After two cups of coffee and some light reading, I left Darkroom Espresso, met a friend, and we made our way up Victoria Rd.

Unfortunately Swindon town venues do not often accommodate these rare sunny afternoons – it’s difficult to find a harmonious balance between outdoor space and character in this area. Nevertheless, it’s the last day of the weekend – I want a cold beer and a bite to eat.

For Old Town, The Hop Inn introduces something more unique and unobtrusive compared to most of the residents on Wood Street. The majority of the bars in this area pride themselves on 2-4-1 cocktails, however this progressive nook on Devizes Rd offers a versatile range of craft ales and lager.

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The bar itself may be small but it does not lack character or an impressive display of beverages. Much like a snug, there is a charming cabin quality embodied by the log fire, exposed brick wall, and wooden bar. In contrast to this rustic feel, the restricted space has been opened by light pastel colours, large windows, and minimal wall art -it’s cosy, but not cramped.

If you’re too spoilt for choice, or unfamiliar with the products, talk to the bartenders. Friendly, and knowledgeable, the staff are happy to recommend and explain the drinks menu. Whether you’re after something fruity, light, hoppy, or uncomplicated, the staff will always find something that’s right for you and your tastebuds.

Having heard about the Hop’s new stone-baked additions, I found myself without hesitation pursuing their modest menu of freshly made pizzas.

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We go for no.9, Prosciutto: parma ham, parmesan, tomato, mozzarella, rocket, and balsamic glaze. The pizzas have few toppings, however they do not lack quality or fantastic flavour – simplistic, and understated, the chef is straightforward and resouceful with his culinary skills. A few slices in and the maker himself approaches us for the verdict. Mouths full, we earnestly attempt to convey our satisfaction, and as he should be, he is pleased- as pizzas go, this stone baked treat is light, fresh and tasty.

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When visiting The Hop, especially at the weekend, do be advised that seating space is limited, and for good reason. Don’t get me wrong, Swindon has plenty of pubs and bars to visit, however if you’re not after a Carlsberg, Stella, or Kopparberg, The Hop accommodates Swindon’s niche market for those who appreciate and have a thirst for interesting and unique beverages. All the same, if you’re not an ale or beer drinker, you are not without options – there is an extensive range of wines, ciders, whiskey and gin on offer.

Unlike ordinary pub chains, this venue is distinct and understated – the owners have done well here to combine honest intentions with contemporary demands. Whether it’s a casual brunch or a cushty evening out, The Hop is the place to migrate to this coming winter.

 

Review: Cox and Baloney’s Tearoom & Bar

// Where: 182-184 Cheltenham Rd, Bristol //

It was my friend’s birthday last week and having just moved to Bristol she fancied doing something a little different. Being the first of our friendship circle to turn 25, she opened the gateway elegantly with afternoon tea and prosecco at Cox and Baloney’s Tearoom & Bar.

What appeared at first to be a small cake shop on Cheltenham Road in Bristol, transformed into a marvellous restaurant filled with ladies lunching. Vintage, with modern touches, the venue boasts a variety of mix-match trinkets, crockery and furniture – all eagerly anticipating admiration from their guests.

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The menu offers a selection of lunch time treats which are perfect for groups of all sizes. Most of the girls opt for Lily’s Afternoon Tea with a glass of Prosecco (£22.50) and they are delighted to be presented with an elegant stand displaying a selection of sandwiches, cakes and scones. Moreover, despite the back room hosting 3 large tea parties (including a hen do), the attention to detail does not falter.

I myself, not a fan of scones, go for a salmon and cream cheese sandwich which is handsomely displayed in triangles and accompanied by crisps and a side salad (£4.50). The rest of the sandwiches on the menu maintain a British continuity from beef and horseradish, to somerset brie and cranberry sauce.

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The staff, attentive and accommodating, frequent the tables to replenish and offer drinks – they’re informative but not overbearing which generates a homely atmosphere. As expected, Cox and Baloney’s offer a wide range of tea from your Grandma’s classic to something more fruity and herbal.

Tearoom & Bar indeed, this venue transcends from day into night effortlessly – although only visiting for lunch, I am completely captivated by the rest of the menu which offers a range of cocktails, wine and chic sharing platters. I will certainly be returning to try out their mixed platter of local meats and cheeses, as well as the tea-infused gin cocktails. Furthermore I am equally intrigued by their breakfast and brunch menu which, much like the decor, is humble and quaint.

// Don’t be late for tea! //

Review: Made by Bob

// Where: The Corn Hall 26 Market Place, Cirencester //

My link with Cirencester is that once upon a time I was a student at Cirencester College. Unfortunately I have since lost ties with the area, and as a non-driver it can be awkward to get there and back again.

With this in mind I had no issue with making the journey to Made by Bob after my friend, and current employee at the restaurant come deli, sung it’s praises.

We made our way into the restored market place for dinner on a Friday – the only day of the week when the dinner menu was available – and are welcomed into a clean, pristine, and open space.

For a small establishment Bob’s exerts an energetic and creative atmosphere. To the right is Bob’s deli filled with authentic country jars of dressings, jams, chutneys, and more. Moreover, and perfectly in tone with Cirencester’s agricultural heritage, there is also an array of meats and cheese on display.

We take a table for two by one of the large pane windows after contemplating taking a seat at the bar in front of the open kitchen – whatever I could smell, I was keen to see.

 

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I go for the squid to begin with. It’s green, light and earthy, complimented by diced potatoes, rocket, onion and capers. Despite it’s initial size it has been coordinated perfectly with all elements equally portioned. As a starter, it has left me satisfied but not full and I’m eager for the next round.

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Without hesitation, we’ve opted for the (rare) steak for 2 and were not disappointed. Elegantly displayed on a wooden board, we are generously presented with succulent steak accompanied by truffles/truffle oil, rocket, grated parmesan, béarnaise sauce, and pommes frites.

All textures and flavours are endorsed by the Pinot Noir which has been aptly recommended by our waiter.

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I am left elated and now  ready to throw my debit card at the situation. You are roughly looking to pay around £70.00 – £90.00 for 2 at Bob’s which includes a bottle of wine and service. Our bill came to a little more as we started with Prosecco and ended with sobet and ice cream (to my advantage, we did abuse my friend’s staff discount).

If you’re ever in this historic area, do pop by this elegant and straight-up serving venue for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Mixing country living with a modern and experimental twist, Made by Bob’s is worth the visit.