Best Restaurant in Dorset – Blackmore Vale Magazine

Copy of article written by Tracey Ramsbottom of Blackmore Vale Magazine featured in the magazine in March 2016

It’s testament to its’ appeal and reputation that when I visited The Riverside on a wet weekday lunchtime in out-of-season October 2015 and again in February, it was packed. In an economic climate which sees pubs and restaurants closing down and/or changing ownership at an alarming rate; it’s amazing that Arthur and Jan Watson have owned The Riverside since 1964. Seafood restaurants are now de rigeur, but in 1974 the Watsons took the then unheard of decision to turn The Riverside into a seafood restaurant, one of the UK’s very first. Rick Stein opened his in Padstow the following year. The Riverside traded successfully all that time, even during the decades when West Bay was considered a “poor cousin” to Lyme Regis and Charmouth, before the TV series “Harbour Lights” and “Broadchurch” brought a restoration in fortune and popularity to the little harbour town. The cast and crew of the hit ITV crime drama were regular diners at The Riverside, and the blue chalet lived in by David Tennant’s character DI Alec Hardy is next door, further up the river. Series 3 starts filming again in May.

“We had a great response to our win,” said general manager Neil Chilcott. “We definitely had more local people coming in. I believe any award like the Taste of Dorset, which is judged independently and anonymously, or voted for by the public, is prized more highly. I don’t like these awards where you have to pay for membership, or for a listing in a guide. I prefer an accolade based on an honest opinion.”

It’s the case that in the hospitality industry there’s a high staff turnover, and certainly on the Dorset coast it’s hard to fill catering vacancies; so it’s testament to the Watsons and their management style that their general manager Neil Chilcott (Chilly) has been in the job more than 31 years; their assistant manager 20 years; their front of house manager more than 21 years, and their head chef eight years. Other staff were recruited from the local community (not brought in from abroad) and have been with the business five years or more; so it’s a safe bet that staff product knowledge is pretty good. The Riverside has given 500 students their first taste of employment. Arthur and Jan Watson were awarded British Empire Medals in the 2015 Honours List for services to the hospitality industry in the south west, and said that the award was recognition of the work of all their staff, as well as themselves.

More than 90 per cent of its food is sourced locally, the menu changes daily according to what is available from the market, local landings and catches from local boats and fishermen; although there are meat and vegetarian dishes also on offer – all from Bridport and Bradpole

The Riverside hosts community events and evenings, sells local crafts and is heavily involved with local charities, shows and festivals, publishing a newsletter about community news and events.

And what about the food? Superb quality, beautifully cooked fish and unfussy, unpretentious cuisine centred on the very finest seafood and vegetables. They certainly let the ingredients do the talking. Specialities are of course seafood and there is a vast range of seafood combinations from the unusual to the traditional. Freshness is key and you can taste that the fish you’re eating is supremely fresh, it melted in the mouth.

Décor is not the twee “Disneyfied” beach-hut sea theme so often found in seaside towns. The memorable setting on the River Brit, accessible only by a footbridge, with views over the river and harbour, is hugely appealing and memorable.