From its seating arrangement where customers can unwind in a Bedouin style lounge to cooking a plethora of highly popular dishes from the country such as tagines and meshwi, The Assilah aims to cater for all.
For the family who have solely run Assilah Bistro and Shiesha Garden for two decades, maintaining traditionalism through food has been essential to their success as an independent business.
Bridget Holden, owner and manager of Assilah, spoke to Bristol Live about what makes Assilah an asset to the community and why it remains to be a beacon of positivity for celebrating Morocco’s rich culture and history.
She said: “It’s family owned and family run, and our ethos has always been about being in Totterdown as a family running business.
“I grew up in Totterdown and so did my partner who is a chef. It made sense to also bring up our children here so we can invest more into our community- that was how the restaurant started. We’ve kept it that way and we’ve kept it as independent as possible.
“Twenty years ago, there was only one other eatery in Totterdown and we became the second. Since then, there are about 11 or 12 here but we’ve always kept it a bring-your-own booze place so we can keep the prices down for customers.
“We wanted to concentrate more on the food so Assilah became a community hub at the beginning for people to meet other neighbours because there wasn’t anywhere else to meet as a community apart from a pub during that time.”
As the restaurant heavily relies on its strong links to Morocco due to the staff’s Arab and French backgrounds, the food was central in playing a part in the growth of Assilah.
Utilising recipes learnt from back home was crucial to Bridget and her team in maintaining Assilah’s reputation as an authentic Moroccan restaurant.
“The menu doesn’t change that often because there’s not a massive selection to pick from, unless you go down the experimental route which people don’t want,” she added.
“They would rather have an authentic Moroccan dish with no twists and we were also the first ones to bring belly dancing, flamenco, live music, which wasn’t available in Totterdown.
“Since then, we’ve held live events which makes it absolutely fantastic for the area, both to work and live in. It’s great for the community, as we have lots of customers that have been with us since day one.
“We’ve seen all their children grow up and they celebrate their birthdays with us in the restaurant. It just continues to build.”
While the Assilah Bistro team believed it was necessary to incorporate dietary requirements that fit all, from being veggie and vegan friendly to offering gluten free options, their consistent menu has been a long-term standout, according to Bridget.
She said: “The one thing we’ve been consistent on which is everybody’s favourite and that is a signature dish is our lamb tagine, as well as our chicken maghrebi.
“We’ve also branched out to the vegan side, originally we only had one or two, but we’ve now noticed and understand a lot more than we did before.
“So that is a new community that we’ve introduced to now and it’s been going quite well.”
As an independent business, Bridget said the team worked hard to avoid Assilah Bistro being exploited and over commercialised by bigger businesses.
As locals in the city, their stance against being turned into a fast food quick-stop was an important reminder to support local small businesses who are fighting to survive and thrive.
“During lockdown and after lockdown, people in Bristol became more community-minded and noticed more of the independent businesses than paying any mind to corporate businesses.
“I can 100% say that we’ve had lots of support from our local community so we strongly believe in our independence by not joining any of these online fast food delivery services. They didn’t help independents at all during the lockdown.
“It’s all about a customer who can come in and speak to the owner and know the owner, while building a relationship with. They can make a decision to support the community and join events such as fundraising and helping the homeless.
“Some restaurants don’t have a long life expectancy because they want to earn their money quickly, then they’re gone.
“We’re not that. We’re about the community and our ethos about family and Moroccan cuisine are rolled into one and that’s how you get Assilah.”
Similar to other businesses in the area, Assilah is heading back on track with some sense of normality turning to the public in the midst of a pandemic.
Despite some cautions regarding the inevitability for another forthcoming lockdown, Bridget hopes to bring Assilah Bistro to newer heights with exciting plans in development and a positive outlook for the year ahead.
“From Easter, when it warms up slightly, we’re going to offer a lot more jazz, a lot more music outside as it makes it easier. We will keep being a BYO menu and never a licensed premise,” she said.
“We’re going to see, especially with the increase of gas and electricity, if we keep prices as close to what they are now to make it affordable for consumers.
“It’s not just us that are only having our prices increased, it’s our customers. And as an independent family business, that’s what we’ve always kept in mind.
“It’s not always about gaining profit, it’s about something to gain in experience and a place socially that the whole family can go to.”
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