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Bill’s in Lewes: Restaurant review

PUBLISHED: 14:39 13 November 2017 | UPDATED: 14:39 13 November 2017

Bill's diablo gnocchi (Photo by Irene Yap)

Bill's diablo gnocchi (Photo by Irene Yap)

Irene Yap all rights reserved

It has grown from its Lewes home to become a feature of more than 75 high streets across the country. Duncan Hall eats in the original Bill’s and meets its founder

Now there seems to be a Bill’s in every major high street it’s hard to remember the time when the only places to enjoy the signature seasonal fresh experience were in Lewes and Brighton.

In the restaurant for the last night of Bill’s Summer of Music programme, chain founder Bill Collison admits he is still passionate about Lewes. His family lives in the town where he converted his old greengrocer’s shop into a friendly café specialising in fresh, homemade seasonal dishes back in 2001. And several long-time staff members, including his son, still work there. Despite the nationwide spread of his brand he is happy to get involved – having just finished personally refitting the Brighton branch in North Road.

Eating an evening meal it is interesting to see the flamboyancy of the early Bill’s has been stripped back. Bill’s in Brighton really went in for garnish – with edible flowers and cut up fruit adorning many of the dishes, whether it needed it or not. Now the decoration is more subtle.

Our starter of golden fried pork sesame dumplings (£5.75) is packed with flavour and spice and the hot dumplings could have come straight from a Japanese restaurant.

The seared salmon salad (£14.50) is everything Bill’s does best – lovely fresh ingredients with interesting flavour combinations. The avocado and mango both compliment the fish, with the ginger and sesame sauce adding an extra tang. My partner tucks into a buttermilk chicken burger (£12.95) accompanied by moreish sweet potato fries with a creamy coleslaw and chipotle mayo dip. In a world proliferated by burger options it still feels fresh and exciting. Bill’s vegetarian halloumi burger (£10.75) has been a constant on the menu for the past 16 years, alongside the ever-popular lunchtime dish of a fish finger sandwich (£9.95) and fish pie (£13.25). One thing which strikes you reading the menu is the sheer variety – this is seasonal dining with something for everyone – from macaroni cheese (£9.95) and burgers (from £10.50) to pan-fried sea bass fillets (£14.95) and 40-day aged ribeye steak (£21.95).

When I opt for the melting chocolate bombe as dessert (£6.95) the friendly waitress warns me it is very chocolatey: “I had problems finishing it.” It is certainly a dish whose memory will warm me on frugal dieting nights to come, packed with ice cream, chocolate brownie chunks and honeycomb – coming complete with a bit of food theatre as the chilled chocolate dome covering the dish is broken down with the addition of warm caramel sauce. My partner has the peach and raspberry crumble (£6.25) but wolfs it down Homer Simpson-style with a big smile on her face before I have a chance to even ask for a taste.

The Summer of Music programme being celebrated on the night we visit carries on a tradition Bill started himself in Lewes. “Every Saturday we would pay buskers to play outside,” he recalls. “To do this again has been a revelation. It makes it interesting for the staff as well as the guests. I have always said opening a restaurant is like putting on a show – the guests are your audience. The more you can do to inspire them the better.”

The rolling out of the Bill’s brand ontinues unabated – Bill recently opened new branches in Braintree and Bracknell. But he is keen to keep that family atmosphere in his business. “Although it is a chain restaurant there’s a lot of soul there. There aren’t many nights when I don’t go to bed worrying about something in one of the restaurants.”

Open Mon to Thurs 8am to 10.30pm, Fri-Sat 8am to 11pm, Sun and bank holidays 8am to 10.30pm.

Bill’s, Cliffe High Street, Lewes, BN7 2AN. 01273 476918; bills-website.co.uk/restaurants/lewes

More…

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