As east Belfast continues to evolve its restaurant offering – rivalling the city’s other culinary quarters in the process – Neil Johnston of latest arrival, Graze, tells LCN a little of he and John Moffatt’s plans for their new business venture…
It may have been chance that brought Neil Johnston and John Moffatt together in a Newtownabbey restaurant three years ago, but the successful bistro that the pair went on to create in east Belfast’s up-and-coming Ballyhackamore district was planned from the start.
Graze opened its doors in November on the Upper Newtownards Road in Belfast, adding its own contribution to the region’s burgeoning reputation as a destination for innovative and fashionable eateries.
Seating just over 52 diners at capacity, Graze offers a deliberately simple, seasonable menu skewed towards seafood but offering enough choice to draw a broad-based and increasingly loyal clientele.
Neil and John both feel that the Library Court location is perfect for their new venture:
“We’re right beside the likes of Horatio Todd’s and right in the middle of Ballyhackamore, which is somewhere that we think is probably the new dining hub for Belfast,” Neill tells LCN. “You might have said that about Hollywood maybe 10 years ago and then it was the Lisburn Road, but now I’m convinced that east Belfast is really the place to be for good food. There are currently 16 eateries in the Ballyhackamore area.”
Neill describes the ambience at Graze as “relaxing and informal” and says that the emphasis is on ensuring a great experience for diners:
“We don’t want to be considered fine dining”, he adds, “we just want to be the sort of place where you can come in straight after work if you want and get taken good care of.”
Both men were working together in another restaurant in 2011 when the decision to go into business for themselves was taken. They looked at a variety of venues, eventually finding premises in east Belfast with which they were happy, but that deal fell through following planning complications.
They found their current premises towards the end of 2012 and Neil concedes that by that stage, if they hadn’t been able to secure the property, they would probably have given up on the idea of owning their own restaurant altogether:
“This place used to be offices belonging to the Youth Justice League, but the design of the place was such that it allowed us to have a basement and we put the kitchen in there and the restaurant on the ground floor,” adds Neil. “We will hopefully do something with the first floor within the next year or so, possibly turn it into a lounge or cocktail bar or something that adds another dimension to the place.”
The new restaurant has been open for four months now and while it’s a little early to call, you can gauge something of its popularity from the fact that those who would like to dine there on Friday and Saturday evenings currently face a four-week wait.
“We keep the menu small and simple and we try to offer guests a new dining experience as products come in and out of season,” explains Neil. “We’re doing a daily special of fish and game, which I think is something that really sets us apart from our competition, and we have our regular dishes that people love and always remember .”
Neil says that Graze is “part neighbourhood bistro and part elegant eatery”, it’s somewhere that people can feel comfortable with, even if they are calling in after work, it offers good food and service at an acceptable price:
“Our customer demographic is such that we appeal to lots of different people really,” remarks Neil. “We both have young families of our own and so we encourage family dining at Graze too and Sunday is a big part of that for us. Families can come and enjoy a traditional roasting board with all the trimmings, they serve themselves from that just as they might at home and it’s a really enjoyable day out.
That traditional family get-together on a Sunday is important. People used to go out to the Stormont or the Culloden on a Sunday for that traditional type of family dining. But it’s all about carveries and buffets now and that family element is lost to an extent and we really want to bring it back to Belfast.”
An ongoing series of mid-week specials at Graze is also drawing diners’ attention – £25 for two courses for two people and a carafe of wine – is helping the new restaurant to broaden its appeal.
“Business has been really good, I think we’ve been really well accepted into the area,” reports Neil. “Originally, we wanted to be like a local eatery, selling seasonally inspired cuisine, we had a massive commitment to the local ethos and to seasonal foods and the whole Graze idea might have been more ‘field to fork’ at the start, but we’ve found that in east Belfast, there was a real demand for seafood and that’s the way we’ve gone.”
Much of the seafood served at Graze comes from Portavogie-based supplier, Stillwater, which supplies a number of high end venues around the city area, and they use Walter Ewings in Belfast as well. Also, they regularly visit local farms and producers who are helping supply sustainable food to the restaurant.
“These are just fantastic products and that’s important because people are still very price-conscious, they’re looking at what they spend and where they spend it and we think that for what we are offering, what we charge is really very competitive for this area,” says Neil.
“You need to remember that people’s choice is massive for dining now. I’m always on Trip Advisor to see how we’re doing and there are 644 restaurants in Belfast now apparently, so there’s the choice that people have, you have to be able to offer really good food, service and prices and I think that we must be doing something right or the people wouldn’t keep coming back to us.”
As for priorities, the business partners are focused on developing the space they have upstairs:
“We feel that as a business, if we can create something that’s really unique up there, whether it’s a lounge or whatever, something that fits about 30 people, then that’s the way to go. Why, as a customer, would I want to go out to any of the other places around here if I can come here and spend the night. It’s about creating a sort of haven for people who want to come out and spend the night, they can go upstairs and enjoy the rest of their night with us. We have really exciting plans for our additional space.”
Neil and John are also keen to keep developing their menu in line with customer feedback and they have recently added wine dinners to their offering, recent;y hosting a very successful evening with New Zealand winemaker, Brent Morris of Marisco, who flew in especially for the Graze event.
“I think a lot of people who came along to that really saw something of what we’re capable of here at Graze and we want to see a lot more of that going on in the future,” adds Neil.