Standing in the builders debris of new restaurant Wilding, due to open in May in the former Cafe Rouge on Little Clarendon Street, it’s all go for new owner Kent Barker.
Sign writers are painting the fascia lettering gold, landscape gardeners work on the outside courtyard, a pizza oven is being levered in, the zinc topped bar is being prepared, Moroccan tiles are attached to walls, and prospective staff are being interviewed.
YOU WILL BE ABLE TO BUY OVER 400 WINES IN THE SHOP AS A WALK IN CUSTOMER OR ORDER THEM IN THE RESTAURANT FOR A CORKAGE CHARGE, 50 BY THE GLASS, 10 ON TAP, PLUS REUSABLE BOTTLES
Painters, decorators, plumbers and electricians mill in a medley of activity, and yet nothing can diminish this space in terms of its future appeal. It’s going to be impressive!
An open plan kitchen has been installed and the rooms are now flooded with light, right through to the conservatory at the end, and the garden at the back which boasts 60 covers alone.
The cafe is found at the front, next to the shop, the bar and restaurant behind them with a private dining room on the first floor, where wine tastings and dinners for up to 16 will be held.
So why this hybrid format? “You need to give people as many reasons to visit as possible; whether that’s to buy a bottle of wine, sit in the cafe, drink a glass of wine at the bar, attend a wine event, snatch a quick pizza or have a full blown meal,” Kent explains.
“But we also want to demystify wine and make it as fun, accessible and easy as possible. There aren’t many places that serve 50 wines by the glass and we try to bring a bit of theatre to the process, to reveal a wine’s heart and soul.
So it’s all go at the huge site, readying for the opening at the end of May, with its the new wine shop, cafe, restaurant and bar hybrid which has worked so well in Frome, Somerset, winning endless awards along the way.
“we start and finish with the wine and as a socially responsible business it is all sustainable, biodynamic or organic with minimum intervention.”
Kent Barker was keen to show me around and explain his vision, and it’s impressive. But while the hard work ensues around us, the project hasn’t been plain sailing either.
“This building has been like a rotten onion, every time we peel off a layer we find another problem,” he says. “We have had to rewire, replaster, re-equip the entire kitchen, redo the roof, the list go on….
“So yes it’s been a labour of love and more expensive and involved than we expected, but then it’s a much bigger site than people appreciate. And if you are going to do something, do it right.
So why here? “We knew this was the right site as soon as we walked in the door. “I love Oxford. I used to supply a lot of wine down here so knew it really well and I remember how buzzing Little Clarendon Street can be. Oxford is such an amazing city with a real vibrancy to it,” Kent says.
So where did he start? “With the wine. That’s where we start and finish, and as a socially responsible business our wine is sustainable, biodynamic or organic with minimum intervention.”
You will be able to buy over 400 wines in the shop as a walk in customer or order them in the restaurant for a corkage charge, 50 by the glass, 10 on tap, as well as reusable bottles.
“It was a massive challenge because we hadn’t realised how busy we would be. There was a tsunami of customers so we had to learn very quickly on the job “
And yet three years ago Wilding was still a pipe dream. Kent was a wine company director, and although he once owned his own fish restaurant in Cambridge where he’s from, had no plans to change careers.
But then he was made redundant and decided to put his money where his mouth is and make good his love of wine and food: “I love the symbiosis between the two,” he says. “My favourite memories are of New Zealand or Italy – eating, drinking and having fun with friends and family. I wanted to recreate that and to introduce people to some truly exciting wines,” Kent says.
Persuading wine connoisseur Sarah Helliwell to come on board, he began scouring the country for a suitable site, until someone tipped him off about Frome where he fought off competition from some major brands to get it, his enthusiasm winning through.
“we want to demystify wine and make it as fun, accessible and easy as possible. There aren’t many places that serve 50 wines by the glass and we try to bring a bit of theatre to the process – to reveal a wine’s heart and soul”
Eight Stony Street was an instant success, but again not as easy as it sounds: “It wasn’t until we opened that the enormity of what we’d done hit us,” Kent remembers. “We knew what we were doing, but we still had to hit the ground running. It was a massive challenge because we hadn’t realised how busy we would be. There was a tsunami of people so we had to learn very quickly on the job and I’ll admit at times it was chaos,” Kent laughs.
Currently sourcing his suppliers, the menu has a strong vegan and vegetarian onus. “It will obviously feature meat and fish but our mantra is that those animals must only have one bad day and to ensure that our steaks and burgers are the best they can possibly be,” Kent explains.
Think sharing boards, scallops, quail, pizzas and rotisserie chicken to get an idea of what to expect food-wise.
Kent never does things by halves, so has also just taken on a third site in Salisbury which will open this year “Ideally we would have liked to wait for a while but the site that came up is so incredible we couldn’t resist” he explains, but in the meantime it’s all about Oxford.
“We don’t want to be average, we aim to be really good. A restaurant lives and dies by the meals it serves and the wine it sells, but we genuinely think we have something here.”
Wilding opens at the end of May on Little Clarendon Street in Oxford. Watch this space for more details and a full review. https://www.wilding.wine