Exeter is fortunate to be home to Circa 1924, a rare and eloquent gem of a restaurant, hidden amongst the myriad of chains burgeoning in the city centre. I was aware of its presence, near the entrance to Northenhay gardens, because it had taken over the sister chain to Harry’s restaurant approximately a year and a half ago. That it is a relatively new and entirely unique establishment the menu is surprisingly robust, and the restaurant incredibly distinct. Behind it’s creative initiative is an approximate date – in the midst of the roaring 20s.
Upon entering my host took the liberty to reserve me a table at the downstairs speakeasy, where pinstriped mixologists in braces delivered flavour combinations so good they should never have survived the prohibition. I learnt that the 1920s thrived as the golden age of cocktails to disguise the poorer quality spirits available, sparking experimentation in alcoholic concoctions. And Circa 1924 house cocktails are certainly experimental. Take the ‘Rum & Raisin Flip’, consisting of pecan and raisin infused Doorlys 5 year old rum, with date nectar, egg and cream. Or the ‘Dill & Fennel martini’, accentuating my favourite herbs in a gin based beverage. I started on the ‘Licorice Espresso martini’ for a pick-me-up before the meal for optimum concentration as hopeful food critic.
There’s a theatre to Circa 1924. The cheerful waiters served flawlessly and attentively whilst dancing around the room. Meals came out served immediately, without a second wasted – no odd dishes sitting on the side in the kitchen. I watched astounded as a waiter poured my date’s Brixham crab bisque starter from a height into a bowl near her lap – without a single drop of it out of place.
When attending restaurant reviews my philosophy is to try the best thing that menu has to offer. Sometimes that means I have to bend my vegetarianism. Once I was told by my server that Circa 1924’s policy is to only sustainably farm fish within a <50km radius from the restaurant building, I felt a little more morally reassured about the plethora of seafood and fish I was about to consume. The clues in the title – ‘Brixham crab bisque’ gives you an indication of just how fresh that starter will be. Each evening there is an availability of 3 fish (on this particular evening lemon sole, mackerel and whitebait) which is hand selected by the restaurant’s own fish monger from fish markets across Devon, ready to be grilled for a succulent main.
I started off with the ‘crispy softshell crab’ which was a whole crab cooked in a very delicate batter, garnished with a fiery chilli and spring onion salad, drizzled with a dark aromatic sweet chilli sauce and wasabi. The crab was so tender and soft, and perfectly matched with an inventive twist of the Japanese style salad.
For main, I just had to have moules marinière as the mussels were farmed from the river Exe. The white wine sauce with parsley, lashings of double cream and caramelised onion. Testament to how exquisite it tasted, my date, who is terrified by the texture of mussels, kept helping herself to more.
My instinct was to go for the white chocolate panna cotta for dessert, but then my date was adamant to have that – so I opted for the dark chocolate truffle torte, served with raspberry sorbet and coulis. Potentially this was the richest chocolate dessert I have ever tasted, so it is not for the faint hearted, but this was beautifully offset by the crisp raspberry sorbet. The petite panna cotta would have been a little too sweet for me if not accompanied by the thick, tart gooseberry coulis and biscuit crumble. The panna cotta was definitely the best option to end the evening meal on a delicate and light note.
Having dinner at a restaurant that boasts such a decadent menu – complete with oysters and rare-breed steaks aged for a minimum of 28 days – seems a faraway and abstract concept for students such as myself. However, Circa 1924 also offers ways to experience such luxuries without the expensive price tag. On Tuesdays, it’s free corkage. On “hump day” Wednesday, steaks and cocktail infusions are 2 for 1. And from Tuesday to Saturday, you can have an express 2 course lunch for only £10.95. Please take full advantage of this offers, as I can vouch that it is the best dining experience I’ve had whilst living in Exeter.