We head down Camden Road to visit the restaurant that is, according to TripAdvisor, Tunbridge Wells’ number one eatery. Owner Mark Harper gives his thoughts on why Rendez-Vous is topping the taste charts…
So Mark, of the 218 local restaurants rated on TripAdvisor, you’re the number one. Why do you think that is?
Yes, we’ve been the leader since January and no one has knocked us off. It’s very nice to be in that position. As to why, we’re an independent restaurant and people in Tunbridge Wells love that; they’ll support us because we’re independent. We provide good, honest, quality food at very reasonable prices. In Tunbridge Wells you can pay £17 or £18 for a relatively inexpensive cut of meat like pork belly, whereas here it’s £12.
How long have you been open?
It’s been two and a half years now. We used to be in premises further up Camden Road towards the town centre, called Le Rendez-Vous – we came out of that and then returned, but without the Le! We had a good following there and were busy for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so many people knew us already for that. Now it’s more restaurant orientated – just lunch and dinner – but we’ve been doing really well.
Describe your approach to food.
We produce everything ourselves, with an emphasis on local produce. It’s game season at the moment and we get our game from Penshurst Place, such as pigeon and partridge. They shoot on a Friday and we collect on a Saturday. Our venison comes from Bayham Estate. People know about that because we put it on the boards. We have specials boards as well as a standard menu and tend to push the seasonal produce. There are some old favourites that are very popular, such as pan fried calves liver and slow roasted pork belly.
And the style of cooking?
My wife is French and our chef John is classically trained. The French gastronome style is what I like to do and there will always be that element, but we don’t present ourselves as a French restaurant. We’re a brasserie with French influences.
Are there any signature dishes we should try?
Because we’re so seasonal, I would suggest what’s on offer at the time and at the moment it’s the game. We have a game pate, smoked duck and a game consommé. In the summer there will be a lot of fish; we had parrot fish on the menu this year. We’ll try anything that’s available, such as crab from Hastings and Rye. When it’s seasonal it’s inexpensive and that’s reflected in the prices.
What sort of ambience can diners expect at Rendez-Vous?
It’s important to have the right sort of atmosphere, but it depends on where people sit. We have three areas and customers can choose where they want to dine. Upstairs, it is a bit darker, with burgundy walls, whereas the mezzanine area, which seats 12 to 14 people, is slightly livelier. We also have a lower area with a bar, which is where lots of the regulars like to sit and chat. So there is a choice, but each area doesn’t have to be busy for the restaurant to have a great atmosphere.
Do customers get to see your chef?
Yes, John always comes out and sits down to have a coffee and a chat. He’s as well-known to customers as I am. The diners can ask him questions about the food and also, we’re very flexible when it comes to dietary requirements, because we prepare everything to order. We always have gluten-free bread here and customers can ask John to do something for them. People do tend to ask about dietary needs and it’s becoming more common.
Is Rendez-Vous a family business?
Yes, my wife is here on Friday and Saturday nights. Plus, my son, who is six and my daughter, who is nine, go to French school in Tonbridge on Saturdays and they come here afterwards to help out. People like to see that family side to the business.
Would you recommend that your children go into the restaurant trade as a career?
I would never suggest that anyone should go into hospitality if they want to make a fortune! You have to do it because you love it. I started out in hotels and that’s a great way to travel the world, particularly when you’re young. If you buy a pub or restaurant, you don’t do it to make a lot of money. But the customers here can see that we’re all having a good time.
What’s new for 2016?
We would like to look at producing food for other people and may start making desserts for a small pub chain. John likes to make desserts, which is unusual for a chef, but he’s always done them and there’s a demand out there.
And how do you intend to remain Tunbridge Wells’ number one restaurant next year?
There’s no big strategic plan – in fact, we’re hoping to have a bit of a rest in January! I think that if we continue to do what we do and focus on great food, we’ll do well. We get new diners coming in every week and there’s a good customer base out there. So we’ll carry on doing what we do and hopefully keep pleasing people.
86 Camden Road, Tunbridge Wells TN1 2QP 01892 525830