It took a couple of visits for us to get The Portcullis in Clifton: as an English pub, it reads as peculiar, but it’s an excellent Belgian cafe.
It really does feel the kind of neighbourhood place you might find in some suburb of Brussels, or out along the route of the coastal tram from Ostend.
On Saturday evening, we sat at a shelf, facing a canvas print of Prince, against a backdrop of red-rose boudoir wallpaper.
We drank Belgian beers chosen from a printed menu, each served in correctly branded glassware – Chimay, Straffe Hendrik, Orval, De Ranke, with more on offer.
Pink Floyd played softly in the background.
‘Dogs on leads welcome’, says a sign on the door, and there were lots of dogs on leads, curled under tables or snarling at each other. One, a puppy,, broke a wine glass (“Bloody hell! Got any blue roll?”) then chewed through its lead and broke free, darting across the floor with a posh man in pursuit.
People knew each other’s names. A regular walked in (with dog) and the pulling of his pint commenced without a word being spoken. The hound received its usual order, too – a biscuit from the jar.
The licensees, Dee and Paul Tanner, were on duty, seeming to enjoy their own pub as much as the drinkers do.
Paul made a circuit offering chocolates from a box bought in Bruges only the day before, but otherwise perched on the end of the bar talking to a friend.
Dee was behind the bar, absolutely on it. Every time we ordered from the Belgian selection she said, quietly, things like, “Oh, that’s a fantastic beer,” and hurried off to find the right glass. Her method is to pour the beer at the bar and present both beer and glass with a logo forward. There’s something very Belgian – proud, a little fussy – in the subtle twist she gives the bottle to get it lined up.
“We like our Belgian beer, my husband and I,” she told us, as if it needed saying.
The Belgian beer isn’t cheap – £7 a bottle is standard – but of course there are good reasons for that. There’s also Leffe on tap at £4 per half-pint and ales from Dawkins and others at around £4.20 a pint.
As a little treat every now and then, an alternative to schlepping to Belgium at huge expense, it doesn’t feel outrageous.
We don’t plan to go often – we want it to stay a bit special, for days when we need picking up – but if you’re in Bristol and craving Belgian atmosphere as much as Belgian beer, it’s worth a detour.