I'd heard good things about the Star Bistro from a friend, and always vaguely intended to go along and try it out for myself. But it was only when I heard Rob Rees talking about the project that I understood there was more to it than just another great restaurant: the Star Bistro is also a model of accessibility at work, providing all the necessary adjustments to allow disabled staff to work both in the kitchen and front-of-house roles. It immediately jumped to the very top of my list of places to try.
The bistro is located at the National Star College, which specialises in providing education for students with disabilities, and is a collaborative venture between the college and the Wiggly Worm charity. Upon arrival, parking is in the regular college car park, and a small sign directs bistro patrons to follow the signs for Reception. It always feels a bit strange to be wandering into a college campus for lunch, though I've eaten at enough student restaurants to be familiar with the experience.
The building itself is modern, and once you're inside the bistro is light and very spacious, meaning it felt a little empty when we arrived - although once it got busier, I was glad of the space between tables. But it doesn't take long to realise that the choice of table spacing is not primarily for the comfort of the guests. Some of the staff are in wheelchairs, and Rachel, the young lady who brought our food, uses a wheeled trolley to mitigate her disability.
The bistro has only been open for just over a year, so everything still feels very new. I loved the open design of the kitchen, meaning you can peek behind the scenes and watch your meal being prepared.
For my main course, I had Parisian gnocchi with spinach and wild mushrooms. There was only one vegetarian main (on a menu of just four items), and if I could change one thing it'd be to have more veggie choices, but the whole menu changes monthly which is frequent enough to mean we can go back and expect to eat something totally different. The gnocchi were fluffy, the spinach was freshly wilted, and there was a great selection of different mushrooms meaning that every mouthful was a different experience.
We shared two desserts between us. The chocolate pithivier, served with whipped cream and coffee crème anglaise, consisted of deliciously light pastry filled with a thick, warm, chocolate cream. It would be hard to over-state how much I loved this dish, and I really want to learn to make it (which is probably the highest compliment I can offer). Our second pud was treacle tart, a subtle and delicate dish served with creamy ginger ice-cream.
I would definitely recommend a visit to the Star Bistro if you're ever in the Cheltenham area. The food was consistently excellent (you certainly wouldn't know you were in a college restaurant, if not for walking in past Reception), the staff were charming, and it's impossible to fault the two-pronged mission of building up the disabled staff's skills & self-confidence while exposing the eating public to a positive, empowered view of disability. When we mentioned to Rob that the second purpose would be even better served by a cafe on the High Street, he hinted that plans were in train for a more central location, so watch this space!
Meanwhile, if you're interested in hearing Rob talk more about the food charities he's involved in, while he waves a large fish around, you'll certainly want to watch his excellent TEDxCheltenham talk: