Remember Café Rouge? At one time, there was one in every major town across the UK. Cafe/restaurants with red and yellow chairs and faux cigarette stained walls. It was the kind of place Mums would duck into for a coffee after the school run, or where you’d wind up having a quick ham sandwich and some fries after a swimming lesson before going straight home to bed. They may not have stood out, but they were something of a necessity. Quick and tasty food in a kid-friendly environment.
Remember Cafe Rouge?
And then it all just slipped away. By their own admission, Café Rouge have had a very slack few years. With the growth of so many competitive cafes and bistros like Côte, serving delicious and fast food at an affordable price, you’d have been forgiven for forgetting about Café Rouge altogether and assuming that they were on the verge of closing down. The company were in desperate need of investment, the restaurants needed refurbishing and, according to Executive Chef Duncan McEwan, they were trying ‘funny things’ with the menu that just weren’t working.
Something needed to change.
A bright and inviting new look
Café Rouge were taken over by The Casual Dining Group in September last year and are now receiving some of the much-needed investment money in order to spruce up the brand. The Kingsway branch is the first site to be transformed to the company’s ‘New Rouge’ look, and it’s certainly a change from the moody and gloomy cafes of the past. The French bistro style is still evident – plush red curtains around the doors, velvet lampshades and red and gold accents are all present – but the walls have lost their yellow tinge and the whole place has been lifted with wide open windows that let in the light. Keane design studio has worked hard to make the restaurant look both traditional and modern at the same time.
It feels plush but also like casual dining at the same time, which fits in with brand’s desire to be welcoming to people of all ages. You can stop there for breakfast, coffee and cake, a drink at the bar or a sit-down meal, showing Café Rouge’s desire to appeal to the masses. Homemade cakes are on display under glass domes, leaning towards the deli counters of Carluccio’s. But, with candles on the tables, ornate champagne buckets and a mosaic floor, the overall atmosphere is unmistakeably Parisien.
This new design is the plan for every single remaining Café Rouge restaurant. Some have been closed down in the upheaval, but all of the remaining ninety-odd restaurants will be redesigned over the course of the next 18 months. It’s an ambitious forecast for the company, who spent a lengthy three weeks refurbishing the Kingsway restaurant, but reflects their intense desire for change. There is an overwhelming sense that Café Rouge has been itching for this change for close to a decade, and now they finally have the means to do it, they won’t stop until the brand has been completely transformed.
A classic and affordable new menu
The ‘Rejuve Menu’ is the pride and joy of Executive Chef Duncan McEwan, who has worked with the company for many years but is now being given full licence to create the French-inspired menu that he’s always dreamed of. The menu draws on the original menu that was created when the restaurant first launched in 1989, bringing back French classics like boeuf bourguignon, poulet breton and French onion soup. Those who remember Café Rouge from their younger years will be pleased to know that the classic Croques are still present on the menu, but with some new additions, like the option for a smoked salmon version.
— Kettle (@KettleMag) May 19, 2015
Much like the restaurant’s new look, the menu reflects a joint desire to bring back French tradition but also stay new, relevant and appealing to customers. Starters like the tempura moules and salmon ceviche were a surprise to find on the menu but were well-prepared and tasty. We opted for the tasting pot of snails on recommdendation from the staff. Classically French and loaded with garlic butter, they were the perfect portion size for a snails novice and an extremely reasonable £1.95. Snails are popular these days with food fanatics and nutritionists as they are considered a superfood. Alongside them, you will find their own take on the ever-trendy superfood salad, again showing the menu’s wide appeal.
Student-friendly, a great date location
Café Rouge is one of the few high street restaurants that offer a real and different appeal to students. The menu is unique, classic but a far cry from the pizza, pasta or chicken and chips that most students thrive on. Offering breakfast, lunch and dinner, it’s an affordable alternative to those students looking for a more refined dining experience, without breaking the bank. The Menu Rapide is a steal at 2 courses for £11.95 or 3 courses for £14.95. Unlike most set menus, it’s available until 7pm when the Menu Soir kicks in at 2 courses for £15.95 and 3 courses for £19.95, including a free glass of fizz when you book online.
It’s ideal for a light bite in the evening but the atmosphere also means it would work for club socials or end-of-term dinners, never mind an affordable and impressive first date. The set menu choices are good, including minute steak on the Menu Soir, which is still only priced at £10.50 on the regular menu. All students will be happy with a choice of salad, pasta, a croque or a customisable omelette, which was huge, fluffy and served with fries.
Reassuringly, over 75% of the food is now being cooked from scratch, a rarity for most chain restaurants and a change from the Café Rouge of the past. Duncan Mcewan is not only passionate about reforming his menu, but his kitchen as a whole, with a foresight to only hiring chefs who are genuinely passionate about cooking and looking towards being head chefs and beyond. It’s rare to find a restaurant chain where there are distinct opportunities for young people to become cooks, instead of just bodies enlisted to wash dishes and chop vegetables. Anyone graduating with an aim to enter the catering industry would do themselves a favour to enquire at a local Café Rouge.
Determined, promising, enjoyable
I came away completely invested in and impressed by Café Rouge’s new vision for themselves. It is a brand and experience that most people will vaguely remember but without much interest, so the new style, new menu and new vigour with which it is all being launched will surely be a pleasant surprise to many. There is undoubtedly still a place for Café Rouge on the British high street and they are about to break through in a spectacular way.
Sunday 24th May is National Snail Day and if you fancy being daring all you need to do is visit your local Café Rouge and ask your server for a FREE tasting pot of the classic snails in garlic butter. Feel the love with the hashtag #rougesnails.