Words Chloe Moss
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“If we can transport someone to a seaside memory for a couple of hours in the middle of a busy day in W1, then I know we’re doing things right”
When I had my first taste of an oyster in summer 2015, I was instantly hooked. Standing just outside a tiny seafood shack on Foley Street, I ordered two fresh oysters sourced in Britain, and washed them down with a glass of white wine. This tiny seafood shack, the location of my seafood revelation, was Bonnie Gull – their “Outdoor Kitchen”, to be precise. The Fitzrovia-based seafood restaurant created an outdoor space for patrons and passers-by to grab fish and chips for lunch, or oysters and canapés in the evening. On a stall decorated with old wooden barrels, the inviting pit stop was impossible for me to avoid whilst en route to my local supermarket, and I soon forgot my shopping list after a few hours spent sat on a bench in the sunshine outside the cosy restaurant.
Spurred on by the lack of great seafood in London, founders Alex Hunter and Danny Clancy launched Bonnie Gull in its initial pop-up incarnation. The duo wanted to remind everyone about the multitude of amazing produce that we have on our doorstep by serving up exciting dishes with the best seafood our shores can offer in a fun atmosphere. As Alex told me, “I find it odd that we live on this island surrounded by seas that produce some of the best fish in the world yet we send most of our catch abroad”. What started as a relaxed pop-up in an old pie ‘n’ mash shop in Hackney, where punters brought their own booze and sampled delicious seafood that didn’t break the bank, has grown to become a Fitzrovia mainstay. The concept was focused from the start: “serve quality, fresh, sustainable, British only fish but in a fun environment”. The idea was a hit, as it seemed diners were starved of a more relaxed seafood experience. A second, longer residency with another Fitzrovia favourite of mine, Mac & Wild, and wine merchants The Sampler, consolidated their brand identity even more with the focus on showcasing home-grown talent in a party-like setting. This in turn led to further success for the team, and the decision to create a permanent space seemed a natural progression.
Mounted on one wall of the restaurant is a blackboard map of the British Isles, updated daily to show where the day’s catch has come from. This map embodies the unique appeal of Bonnie Gull and the reason it continues to stand out amongst competition. As Alex says, “it’s all about championing British seafood”. During a recent visit, I toured British shores via oysters from Dorset, crab from Salcombe Bay and haddock fresh from the North Sea, as well as tucking into my dining partner’s Scottish langoustine ravioli. With the emphasis placed proudly on their great British seafood, the team undergo a challenging process of sourcing produce via a range of boat suppliers who bring the best of their catch straight to the restaurant. They only use a product when it is at its best and is sustainable, meaning that the menu changes almost daily, requiring a level of creativity and quick thinking from head chef Christian Edwardson. Alex knows that this complicated process is part of Bonnie Gull’s appeal, as he puts it, “most chefs wouldn’t dream of doing it but our guys know it’s what sets us apart from other seafood restaurants”.
“A seaside restaurant in the city” nestled on the corner of Foley Street, the blue and white striped awning of Bonnie Gull cuts a sunny and inviting figure for residents and passers by looking for refuge from the bustle of Oxford Street nearby. The restaurant itself is a refined, subtle love letter to seaside dining, and by avoiding gimmicks they able to create a timeless dining experience. Details like the appliqué rope-covered wall, fisherman’s bell, a bar lined with old merchants’ crates and even antique suitcase filled with oysters ready to be shucked make the small space seem familiar without being twee. By avoiding gimmicks, Alex says that they have been able to create a timeless dining experience with broad appeal.
Fitzrovia seems a perfect location for the intimate, familiar atmosphere that the team is aiming for, because of the village-like qualities of the area. Alex calls it the “the forgotten corner of the West End” because it has managed to retain its charm and the quirks of its history whilst becoming a hub for exciting local businesses. It’s easy to see why the “cute little corner site with a terrace on a quiet uneventful street” was a natural choice as the permanent home for their seaside oasis.
I might be a little biased because it was the spot of my own seafood awakening, but for me, Bonnie Gull is the pearl in Fitzrovia’s oyster. Despite growing from a pop-up to the restaurant on the corner the concept and attitude to quality seafood has remained the same – their passion for sharing great seafood is evident in ideas like the “Outdoor Kitchen” and their “Shore to Door” dining experiences, for which they again team up with The Sampler for wine pairing and tasting sessions. With a second Seafood Shack on the horizon in Central London, Bonnie Gull will be branching out from their sunny corner in Fitzrovia to transport even more diners to a seaside memory.