Getting Cambridge-centric at Parker's Tavern

Getting Cambridge-centric at Parker's Tavern

There are two ways in which any person can view the notion of starting a business from ‘scratch’.

It could be a chore to have to build every piece of the concept from hiring the staff, to sourcing the taps in the toilet. Or it could be the perfect way of constructing an undiluted vision.

Central to an £80m refurbishment of the University Arms Hotel in Cambridge, a new F&B concept is anticipated to become the new dining darling of the scholastic city.

Parker’s Tavern is the vision of chef Tristan Welch, himself a scholar of prominent tutors, Messrs Ramsay, Roux and Rhodes.

Returning from a three-year stint in the Caribbean at the head of the Cotton House and Beach Café in Mustique, Welch has overseen the 110-cover all-day-dining restaurant and 61-cover bar develop from a seedling idea into a modern British brasserie that lives and breathes his home city of Cambridge. There is an extra incentive for Welch.

“This is a very important appointment for me,” he says. “It is a homecoming and I have been on the project from the point of conception. From the cutlery and crockery to the uniforms, it has been either designed or overseen by me. I have been part of each process.
“A great restaurant, unfortunately, can be something quite selfish. It is one vision and can be quite uncompromising.
“Parker’s Tavern is a vision that has been unadulterated, been bought into by everyone and I hope that will be one of the steps to success.”

Welch knows a thing or two about success, having held positions at legendary locales such as Le Gavroche in London and L’Arpege in Paris and as head chef of Gordon Ramsay’s Petrus restaurant at the Berkeley hotel.

“In those kitchens, cheffing is not just a job, it is a lifestyle, and you have to just live it,” he says. “It requires absolute dedication to be successful in those kitchens. It requires everything you could possibly give them.”

He headed the relaunch of the D&D-owned Launceston Place in 2007, before heading to the Caribbean in 2013 to experience something new with his family. But after three years, with his children nearing school age, Welch and his wife felt it time to return home.

“It was just one of those really lucky things where all the planets aligned,” he explained.
“We had been looking around the UK to find our new home and Cambridge came up trumps. My wife fell in love with the city, and I had a friend who was opening up the University Arms Hotel.
“I told them I was looking to open a restaurant in Cambridge and put every effort into it to make it as good as it can be. And they said ‘So are we’. The collaboration went from there and Parker’s Tavern was born.”

Home town
Parker’s Tavern is so named because it overlooks Parker’s Piece, an open space in the centre of Cambridge often used for sporting events, which in turn is named after Edward Parker, a cook who is believed to have become the first restaurateur in the city in the 17th century.

The 192-room hotel is owned by real estate investor Melford Capital, which bought the property from the De Vere Group in 2012, and has been designed by interiors specialist Martin Brudnizki.

“Having the right décor is a vital part of the process,” says Welch. “It has got to be harmonious with the restaurant. We are very lucky to have the Martin Brudnizki-designed restaurant, which has this college dining reference throughout, with stained-glass windows referencing all of the Cambridge colleges.”

The impression is akin to eating in halls, except that there are chairs with blue velvet and burnt orange linen, sofas in burgundy wool mixed with red leather Chesterfields, white marble, pewter, parquet flooring and panelled walls in Cambridge blue. 

Taking the influences of its host city firmly to its heart the restaurant is central to the University Arms Hotel experience.

“We want people to come to the city, stay at the University Arms and have the opportunity to dine in the most exciting restaurant in Cambridge in the evening,” he explains.
“Cambridge can be very transient, with lots of visitors and tourists, so we can offer a very town-centric experience with the décor of books and literacy and other university connections that make Cambridge so wonderful.
“In the restaurant, it is a taste of Cambridge with locally sourced ingredients and local recipes that have been brought up to the modern day.”

The a la carte menu is described as “a return to good, unpretentious British cooking. No fuss. No froth”.

“It’s a restaurant where the passion and flair is in the technique and sourcing of ingredients rather than putting a million different things on a plate,” says Welch. “It is very ingredient-led, because some of the most amazing produce in the UK is out and around Cambridge.
“We have the most amazing potted shrimp, which has come from King’s Lynn down the road. We have stuffed artichoke with lemon butter sauce, local asparagus with sunflower mayonnaise. There are historic notes to it.
“The saying Hobson’s Choice originated in Cambridge, and we will call our daily-changing pie the Hobson’s Choice pie ay. There are wonderful quirks about it.
“Lemon sole, with brown butter and coastline herbs. Or roasted scallops: the most simple but delicious clean food that is thoughtfully prepared.”

There will be no tasting menus but instead feasting menus that participate the entire table.
“I like the idea of feasting menus with giant sharing platters going down the middle of the table.” Suckling pig is mentioned.

Quotes from famous Cambridge alumni, for example AA Milne’s ode to his favourite pudding, Cambridge Burnt cream, adorn the literature. It would be easy to find pretention in the theme, especially in the city of assumed higher thinking, but this dissipates at the obvious abundance of passion for the area and Welch’s aims to create an experiential destination restaurant.

“We were adamant from early on that we don’t want a ‘hotel restaurant’,” he says.
“Some hotel restaurants are still a room at the back of the hotel that generally
does breakfasts and is a bit of an after-thought or a cost-cutting exercise.
“At the University Arms we are being really bold and really proud of what we have here.
We have got a great front entrance on Regent Street in Cambridge. You can walk freely between the hotel and the restaurant, but having a shop front is really vital for a restaurant. And we have an amazing shop front.
“It is a really big statement of intent within the hotel.”

Whether it was Welch’s disdain for tired ‘hotel guest only’ restaurants or because it was part of the deal, Parker’s Tavern has also taken on provision of breakfast for overnight customers, room service and event catering at the hotel.

“I think this is an area where some hotels get it wrong,” he says. “I can’t abide segregation, or a divide between where the restaurant guests eat and the overnight guests eat. It’s the same in kitchens. I don’t want a University Arms kitchen and a Parker’s Tavern kitchen.
“So, Parker’s Tavern will take over the full range of F&B operation. Therefore, every element of the F&B will be touched with the Parker’s Tavern ethos.
“We have made the team a bit bigger than what we would have in a normal restaurant and essentially opened an all-day restaurant that does breakfast, lunch and dinner for hotel guests as well as the restaurant guests.”

Welch is a man who knows what he wants, and he wants excellence. More than 50 staff are currently being readied in an intensive five-week training course to be ready for the soft opening in early summer and the full opening in June.

But re-hiring a roster of old colleagues for his team was not something he wanted to be endemic in Parker’s Tavern. He is about evolving.

“A lot of my former chefs, and I am very proud of them, have gone on to do amazing things, so I’d hate to invite them back to work for me because they are doing it in their own right now.
“I have recruited a few friends from before but not too many. I believe in mixing things up a little bit rather than everyone going back into their comfy pair of shoes.
“I think you have to be pushed a little bit to bring out your best.”

And he is in the perfect city to do just that.