If you’re a fan of aptly named businesses then you can do no wrong in visiting the Pier Hotel, situated no more than a few hundred yards from Penarth’s pier, overlooking the often glum Bristol Channel. Rarely does the Channel that has the potential to provide 5% of the United Kingdom’s power supply look great, but on this particular visit, it looked at its most miserable. Why prattle on about it? Because the waterfront is supposed to be the major draw in the area for recreation, and perhaps even a spot of tourism if you happen to get lost on the route to the more desirable West Wales. We feel that if the Bristol Channel looked a little more like Holly Willoughby and less like the sagging corpse of King Henry VIII, then business might pick up a little, especially out of season. Alas, as Basil Fawlty would say amid panic (skip to 3:00), ‘No, it’s not a dream, we’re stuck with it!’.
It therefore is a little surprising that any investment is made in the area. What was quite a bustling part of the Vale of Glamorgan around ten years ago, where a number of restaurants and cafés basked in the halcyon days (including a brilliant Chinese, which is now deceased), there is now a bare bones selection remaining, including the little ice cream booth on the Victorian-built pier, which has thankfully survived thus far. Despite the pier undergoing a multi-million pound overhaul, there seems to be scant hope for the area.
However, if places like The Pier Hotel continue to breathe a little life into the deflating lungs of Penarth’s front door (if you’re entering via boat), then there’s hope yet. It’s a lovely place, very sleek, modern, with a range of wines that will take around a week and several hangovers to sample through, with an appealing lunch menu and something a little more sophisticated in the evenings to supply some competition for Romeo’s Italian-based restaurant next door. The staff we saw were very friendly too, which is always great as it can offset even the most disappointing of venues.
With the general feel of the menu based on home-cooked and crafted dishes, you get the impression that you’re about to experience some good quality food. At lunch, it’s easy to sneak in a sandwich at below £6, which is reasonable these days, but you certainly won’t spend anything over £9 during the day, unless you’ve got issues like us and have a desire to order two dishes. The lunch offer is good, ranging from nibbles and the aforementioned sandwiches, to fish dishes and, if you fancy pushing the boat out (sorry), a healthy-sounding spaghetti carbonara. By ‘healthy’, we mean quantity, not contents! Being incredibly tempted by the latter, we shamefully chose the ‘hero dish’ – the burger. Our apologies for the lack of imagination, but it was lunch time and we fancied a sandwich.
Upon ordering a terrible omen came our way. The skies clouded over, the breeze picked up and, most worryingly, we were handed a bowl of sachets. Sachets. Before you ask what the big deal is, we’ll tell you: sachets are one of the biggest giveaways that you are no longer getting what you thought you were. A restaurant can feature diamond-encrusted chandeliers and as many bottles of Cristal behind the bar as it likes, but it will never get to where it wants to be with a thought process that acts like a back-street café. It stole the great impression we’d received up to that point. It’s like viewing a promising house only to find an overwhelming patch of damp on one wall; in other words, there’s work to be done.
Continuing with the efficiency we’d experienced so far, our lunches arrived within twenty minutes of ordering, again showing The Pier knows what it should be doing. The burger looked good too, served in a rustic bun, looking chunky and promising flavour; yet it was sat alongside frozen ‘steak-cut’ chips, and not the seasoned fries the menu dictated to us. At that point, expectations rightfully sank.
At £8.45, a fair hit in the pocket for a lunch time burger, it failed to match its asking price. The burger was dry, exacerbated by the overtly crusty cob that was too big for the beef, making it the rear-end-of-a-badger-dry. No amount of sachet sauce could offset the evaporation of moisture that was about to entail. It was over-seasoned too, with a huge focus on grinding as much pepper into the patty as possible, leaving the rest of our taste buds scrambling for another flavour to a point where we’d forgotten it was topped with cheese. Unfortunately, the chips lacked flavour, bordering what you’d expect from a bag of frozen McCain oven chips, while the salad was salad. We certainly regretted not trying the carbonara instead.
The following coffees didn’t help matters either. From what we could tell, the bitterness of the espresso suggested the machine needed a clean. For as pleasant a stay as it was, with a setting that evokes the feeling of being on holiday, albeit for an hour or so, it lacked that special ingredient to entice a return visit at the next opportunity. Not that we wouldn’t return thanks to the benefit of doubt, as it was well-kept, independent and very welcoming; it’s simply that the décor, slick presentation and high prices raised our hopes a little too high. We want nothing more than for independents to thrive and with a few tweaks it could be the perfect local getaway.