Reviewed in Feast issue 39 – September 2019
Talk about breathing new life into a very old building. Shambles Café Bar Bistro, which opened in North Walsham last autumn, occupies a building which is a listed former weavers’ barn and officially the town’s oldest building.
During its life, the Market Street venue is known to have been a coaching inn, with stables and blacksmith on site; both Blyths and William H Bird ironmongers and most latterly Blakeman Carpets, before it closed and the site became rather rundown.
The front bit of the shop was built in about 1840 and was a modern extension to the back three-storey building which dates back to about 1510.
Turning it into a restaurant has been a real labour of love for former GP Rebecca Lysaght, and her family. She bought the building four years ago and, after three years of hard work, and huge support from a team of highly skilled tradesmen using reclaimed, traditional materials and methods, such as wattle and daub (apparently it’s one of the last examples of a certain kind of wattle and daub in Norfolk), and lime mortars (mixed with goats’ hair), the result is far from a shambles, if you can excuse the pun. Oh, and there’s a sparkly new kitchen, thanks to an EU grant.
Inside the café, there’s a distinctly arty feel, with featured artists including Heidi Wigmore, who originally studied at Norwich School of Art – her mixed-media drawings of performers from the East London Strippers Collective caught the eye! Nearby there’s a Bechstein piano tucked away in a little recess, just waiting to be played, so you get the general vibe. The eclectic mix of furniture and tableware (think cushioned window seats and big communal tables), has been sourced from auctions and so forth.
At the bar, iced tea was very much on offer when we went (it was the day after the hottest July day on record, to be fair), and there were plenty of soft drink options (it was Diet Coke for the daughter and cranberry juice for me), or, had we come by train, which would’ve been an idea, there was Adnams Ghost Ship or Dry Hop, as well as Aspalls.
Shambles is a real family affair with son George one of the chefs in the kitchen. The menu has a distinctly Mediterranean/Middle Eastern style, but they are also passionate about using local produce, so dairy comes from Nortons Dairy in Frettenham; meat is sourced from local farms with good animal husbandry, and much of the salad and veg comes from North Walsham and surrounding villages.
The lunch menu is made up of meals ‘from the kitchen’ or ‘from the counter’, for a wide selection of freshly made salads. There’s also a pizza oven, so expect to see a separate pizza and pasta menu. Oh, and there’s
a good range of vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options throughout.
I chose the Shambles salad bowl, which was a real bowlful and quite delicious – they claim it be so on the menu and they’re not wrong! It comes with a big dollop of houmous, plus I opted for a Lebanese Mountain flatbread, made on site. My daughter eschewed the salads and went for a sausage sandwich on sourdough bread, made by Bob ‘The Bread’ Wright, North Walsham’s artisan baker. We also had a portion of Yemeni style falafels as an added extra on the side.
For our lunch we had decided to sit out in the courtyard, which is a secret space, and very much a hidden gem. It’s a fab al fresco setting – on a warm day you could almost imagine being on holiday in the Med, rather than on a day trip in North Norfolk.
We could’ve had pudding (on the comprehensive specials’ board we spotted summer trifle, Shambles mess or a watermelon plate), but our appetites had taken a hit in the heat so instead we decided to take away with us gluten free lemon drizzle cake and ginger cake, in a doggy bag. Which reminds me, dogs are very welcome at Shambles (I chose to leave mine at home, rather than have him lolloping about in the midday sun).
The café cum bar cum bistro is open from 9am to 9pm, so you could happily while away the hours from breakfast and brunch (on a Saturday at least) all the way through to afternoon tea and dinner.
There’s a real community feel to Shambles, which is very much a not-for-profit place. Upstairs is a country house style Drawing Room, complete with sofas and rugs, which looked to me to be a great space for groups to get together in the colder months, and the plan is to open a community room, also upstairs, for arts, talks, or demonstrations – whatever people want, basically. It’s that kind of place.
Rebecca has strong links with the town, as a leading player in securing funding for the Atrium, a governor at the high school for seven years and a trustee and founding member of Arts North Norfolk. And it kind of shows – all that community mindedness shines through in Shambles.