It’s difficult to understate the challenges under which local restaurants have toiled these past 16 months.
Ever since the Prime Minister stood at a podium and told people restaurants could stay open, but we ought not to go to them, the industry has been in a tailspin. There are not enough staff. The industry formerly relied on a huge quotient of overseas labour, particularly from Europe, most of which now live in France, Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe. Damn. Didn’t think that one through.
Worse, of course, has been Covid. While Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme has saved numerous businesses from the brink, others have been less fortunate. Rents still have to be paid, as do overheads and contributions towards the furlough scheme. Businesses that didn’t have cash in the bank have been caught short.
The ones that are still standing are the smaller independents, who’ve been flexible, continued to serve their local communities and who have a bedrock of support from regulars.
Thai Arts, in Bridgnorth, is one such restaurant. Well-regarded locally, the restaurant fulfils an important function in the town.
Bridgnorth has a decent casual dining scene with a really good Chinese restaurant, a wide selection of Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants, more than its fair share of fish and chip shops and a decent Thai. On the outskirts of town there’s Stuart Phillips’ Hundred House, which caters to those looking to celebrate a special occasion.
Throughout the pandemic, like other restaurants in Bridgnorth, Thai Arts has continued to trade when the regulations have allowed. It’s made the adaptations that have been thought necessary, installing clear plastic screens between tables, ensuring people sign in and provide contact details, making sure the NHS track and trace app is used where possible.
And though staff have been masked up throughout, they convey warmth and friendliness in the absence of a full-on smile.
I made a last-minute booking for dinner. There may have been something else going on elsewhere that meant restaurants were quiet, I don’t know, something to do with football. Has there been a match on this week?
The streets of Bridgnorth were bedecked in the flag of St George and kids who must’ve been all of 15 were parading through the town’s picturesque streets singing songs about ‘Coming Home’.
In summer, Bridgnorth is the prettiest of places. The river is low, the architecture spectacular as it basks in early evening light, while there’s a sense of history about the place. It is well-maintained, there are immaculate gardens and green spaces; little wonder it’s a favoured spot for visitors from across the Black Country and Shropshire. If only there were enough places to park.
Thai Arts is away down St Marys Street, a narrow and historic throughfare designed long before the popularisation of cars.
Like so many buildings in Bridgnorth, the one housing Thai Arts has stood for many, many generations. It would be disingenuous to say it’s been given a modern make-over by those who run the restaurant.
Instead, it feels a little retro, with plenty of ornaments in the window, golden-coloured motifs on the walls and red and gold wallpaper that’s seen more dinners than it might wish to remember.
The staff are warm and friendly. When I visited, a table was rustled up within minutes. Even in the current age of needing-to-book-ahead, it’s possible to make a last-minute reservation, particularly when the rest of the town is at home or in a bar watching England conquer Germany. Two-nil.
The menu is straightforward. At present, people are handed a photocopied sheet of it and a pen, so that they can complete a tickbox and avoid cross-contamination. The menus are recycled afterwards; fewer hands on a menu means less risk of infection.
I started with a combination platter, featuring a moist and tender chicken satay with a small pot of liquid, slightly spicy satay sauce. The chicken had been gently cooked and the sauce was flavoursome and quickly devoured.
A prawn on toast was pleasant enough, with the minced prawn being well seasoned by ground pepper and salt before being topped with white sesame seeds. A pot of sticky, sweet chilli sauce provided the perfect accompaniment. A vegetable spring roll was a little too heavy with pastry, with barely enough room for vegetables, while a honey spare rib was delicious, having been well cooked so that the meat fell from the bone and it was devoid of fat or sinew.
The platter was presented elegantly, with shredded and sculpted vegetables providing crunch and refreshing coolness against the hot starters.
The main was delicious. A generous serving of sticky rice accompanied a sweet and sour chicken number. The chicken had been lightly battered and was once more well-cooked, retaining its natural moisture and tenderness; compliments to the chef. It was drenched in a thick, sticky, piquant sauce along with thin slices of green and red pepper, onion, pineapple, tomato and carrot. The sauce was fabulous, homemade by the chef and full of flavour. The rice provided the perfect mop for it and I greedily cleared the plate.
Service was good, if not necessarily at-a-distance.
We continue to live in strange times and even when restrictions are lifted on July 19, many will feel more comfortable with some form of regulation in place.
Though vast numbers of people have been vaccinated, the virus continue to spread widely and until that stops, people will be glad of extra precautions to mitigate against infection.
It’s far from easy running a restaurant at this time and those who do need our support. Certainly, the other customers at Thai Arts were vocal in their support. Many chatted about their fondness for it, citing high standards, consistency and warm greetings from staff. It clearly has a place in the hearts of locals, and with good reason.
In challenging times, it’s continuing to put a smile on the faces of its customers by serving economically-priced food that’s served to a good standard. Long may it last.
Thai Arts, 69 St Marys St, Bridgnorth WV16 4DR
Phone: 01746 768980