The Strawberry Thief: Belgium in Bristol

Saison Dupont in branded glass.

A lot of talking and thinking about Belgium and Belgian beer gave us the taste and so, passing through Bristol, we researched the best place to find it, which led us to The Strawberry Thief.

There are few exam­ples – no exam­ples? – of pas­tiche bet­ter than the orig­i­nal, but it is always edu­ca­tion­al. New Sher­lock Holmes sto­ries illu­mi­nate what Conan Doyle got right by what they get wrong; Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens is an excel­lent com­men­tary on Star Wars; The Rut­les bring home how unique The Bea­t­les real­ly were. And so on.

The Straw­ber­ry Thief pitch­es itself as ‘an ele­gant bar’ and adopts a num­ber of Bel­gian quirks. A big one – the thing that tells you this is Not a Pub and that you are not in Eng­land – is wait­er ser­vice. They’re good wait­ers, too – just on the right side of atten­tive with­out mither­ing, although (pas­tiche give­away #1) they don’t have quite the rum­pled, resigned author­i­ty that you get with the real deal in France, Bel­gium or Ger­many.

An odd detail that boosts the Bel­gian atmos­phere is the fur­ni­ture. We don’t know much about inte­ri­or design but this stuff – brown, round­ed, more del­i­cate than bomb-proof British booz­er kit – evoked Brus­sels or Bruges in some sub­con­scious way. (Did Proust ever have a pro­found moment of recall through the seat of his pants?)

The beer, and its pre­sen­ta­tion, was The Big Sell. A sub­stan­tial menu of around 50 Bel­gian beers cov­ered all the bases, albeit with few sur­pris­es. The prices might be off-putting to some: most of the stan­dard-sized bot­tles (330–375ml) were going for more than £6. All of those we ordered came in appro­pri­ate­ly fan­cy glass­ware, prop­er­ly brand­ed in all but one case when an unbrand­ed chal­ice was pro­vid­ed. We reck­on we spent about £10 an hour on drinks between us – we hap­pened to choose one of the cheap­er beers, De La Senne Taras Boul­ba at £4.50 – which did­n’t feel out­ra­geous, if you think of it as rent on the seat, and bear in mind the high strength of most of what’s on offer.

The walls and ceiling at The Strawberry Thief.

What yanked us out of our Eurostar fan­ta­sy was the back­ground music (con­tem­po­rary dance pop where we want­ed Grap­pel­li), the light-blue walls (brown is still not cool in Britain) and the sec­ondary theme: the designs of William Mor­ris. The lat­ter makes com­plete sense giv­en the view from the win­dow of the ornate facade of the arts-and-crafts Ever­ard Print­ing Works oppo­site and, indeed, is the source of the bar’s name (‘Straw­ber­ry Thief’ is a Mor­ris wall­pa­per design), but it’s got noth­ing to do with Bel­gium. Anoth­er thing that did­n’t quite sit with the Bel­gian theme was the preva­lence of pints of lager – by our reck­on­ing draught Lost & Ground­ed Keller Pils (a nor­mal­ish beer at a nor­mal­ish price-per-pint from a local brew­ery) was the over­all best­seller.

But as night fell, can­dles went out, lights came down, and a crowd filled every cor­ner, all those quib­bles washed away. If you’re will­ing play along, it’s close enough. We would­n’t want, and could­n’t afford, to spend five hours here every night, but as a stop on a crawl, or as mid-week, post-work treat, it’s a nice gar­nish on a city beer scene oth­er­wise dom­i­nat­ed by old school real ale pubs or pal­let-wood-n-Edi­son-bulbs craft beer bars.

6 thoughts on “The Strawberry Thief: Belgium in Bristol”

  1. The addi­tion of non – bel­gian beers is a rel­a­tive­ly recent phe­nom­e­non, dri­ven part­ly I expect by the high prices for bel­gian beers you cite. The bel­gian beer menu is some­what unad­ven­tur­ous but its always nice to be able to sam­ple the clas­sics in this envi­ron­ment.
    We like the bar for an occa­sion­al vis­it but the loud music does grate.

  2. I like the fact it cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly isn’t either of the last two alter­na­tive types you men­tioned. It’s good to start on a fresh can­vas.
    Plus, to give a new bar a direct link to some­thing local (the William Mor­ris wall­pa­per design) is always a bonus in my book.
    When I was a beer new­bie I vis­it­ed the Low­lan­der Cafe on Drury Lane and mis­guid­ed­ly insist­ed that the beer I got (it was prob­a­bly Duv­el) was giv­en in pint mea­sure. I basi­cal­ly paid for two at once and nursed a migraine short­ly after. When you’re young you know it all, you see?

    1. I like the fact it cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly isn’t either of the last two alter­na­tive types you men­tioned.”

      Yes, us too. Not sure why there aren’t more Bel­gian-style bars in the UK but guess it’s because it’s a 1990s-00s thing that went out of fash­ion. Hope­ful­ly com­ing back now, although the fact that it’s dif­fi­cult to sell Bel­gian beer at any­thing less than eye-water­ing prices might be a lim­it­ing fac­tor.

  3. Just vis­it­ed a new Bel­gian-focused beer place myself – the Bøck Bière Café [sic] in Man­ches­ter – although I was there in the after­noon & only stopped for one. Obvi­ous­ly I noticed that I was but­ton­holed on my way in & invit­ed to sit down, but that was about the only strik­ing­ly ‘dif­fer­ent’ thing about the place, apart from the awful name and the excel­lent range of beers. Think­ing about it now I’m strug­gling to say I liked the place, although it’s hard to put a fin­ger on any rea­son why not. Tables a bit too small? Low-hang­ing lights a bit too bright? Maybe, but on both counts I’ve seen worse in Bel­gium. Where they did lose a point or two was serv­ing my St Bernar­dus Abt in an unbrand­ed glass – you would­n’t see that in Bel­gium. But it def­i­nite­ly fills a gap in Man­ches­ter; I’ll be check­ing it out again, par­tic­u­lar­ly as they’re promis­ing to start doing frites.

    1. I went there a few weeks back. I was busy (stressed, anx­ious) car­ry­ing out inter­views so not pay­ing close atten­tion but it did feel a bit as if it had­n’t quite set­tled in. Still, a nice thing to have, and busy from what I could see, too, which bodes well for its future.

  4. My issue with the Straw­ber­ry Thief is that its pric­ing isn’t real­ly jus­ti­fied by its selec­tion of beers. I would absolute­ly go in and be hap­py pay­ing £10 for a 375 if they had Can­til­lon, or even Boon avail­able on the reg­u­lar, but as it is, if I want an inter­est­ing Bel­gian beer I’ll go to Small Bar ahead of it all day every day.

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