The House on the Cliff: A Local Restaurant’s Rise to Fame
In practically every major city in the world, there’s always at least one restaurant that has evolved to the point where it’s either known by name, or by reputation. Whether it’s a famous chef or number of Michelin stars, exotic location or limited amount of seats, glamorous clientele or extreme cuisine, these coveted dining experiences are becoming more sought out than ever before.
— By Joanna Fox
This is no ordinary dinner by any means, but amongst those rare few momentous meals that guests look forward to for ages, book months ahead of time, wait for a special occasion, and often save especially for. To achieve this level of prestige, to get to this stage on the global dining scene, all these restaurants and chefs had to start somewhere, they didn’t all just open their doors to accolades, waiting lists and international fame.
The Cliff has been open since 1995 and is reputed to be the top restaurant on the island of Barbados, one of the best restaurants in the Caribbean, and even one of the most exclusive dining experiences in the world. Nestled into the side of a cliff overlooking the scenic West Coast of Barbados, The Cliff is known not only for its caliber of cuisine, but also for its unusual, mesmerizing and entirely original setting. Some say it looks like a pirate ship, others a fort, but there is one thing that’s for certain: it’s breathtakingly dramatic.
When you enter The Cliff you walk down towards the water, descending along a stone walled staircase and exiting into an incredible open-air space entirely illuminated by torches. Each table glows by candlelight and every seat in the house overlooks the sea. As much as the restaurant itself is awash in a fiery warmth, the ocean just below provides an exceptional contrast. The blue phosphorous water is brought to life by low-lying spotlights that accentuate the very distinguishable shapes of stingrays and tarpon fish that circle below. From The Cliff’s beach, another staircase leads up to the three-tiered restaurant for those who choose to arrive by yacht.
From the impeccable service to the starched linens, impressive wine cellar and daily specials flown in from around the world, The Cliff is not your ordinary restaurant. It didn’t start out like that though, very far from. It was actually just a plain house on a cliff that was the collective vision of two men: owner Brian Ward and chef Paul Owens.
“Brian approached me about a restaurant, which was just a little house with dirt all over the place”, recalls Owens. “I was like, where’s the restaurant going to be? And [Ward] said he had it all sorted. I said ok, where’s the car park? He said, don’t worry, mate, I got it organized and finally, I said, ok, I’m in.”
Owens, who is originally from Liverpool, had arrived in Barbados years earlier after falling in love with the place during several holidays. By the fourth visit, he simply decided to stay. He began his culinary career working in kitchens when he was only 14 years old and after leaving school shortly thereafter, began working as a cook full time. Before arriving in Barbados permanently, Owens had worked his way up to chef at a very successful Liverpool restaurant but he gave it all up to pursue a life on this small island.
So how did Owens and Ward take a modest house and transform it into something that could very well resemble an ocean side castle with a brigade of 12 chefs and room for 200 diners? “We just kept on getting busier and busier and busier” shrugs Owens. “Most of this now didn’t exist, we just began to dig it all out bit by bit”. It wasn’t just the restaurant that slowly got bigger though, so did its reputation, both on and off the island.
As more people began to hear of this new restaurant, The Cliff, the team began to make small changes, especially to the quality of the food, the wine and the service. “Although Paul and Brian started with their own concept, a lot of items on the menu evolved because of the guests”, explains Peter Harris, The Cliff’s delightful general manager. “Paul’s initial idea about this restaurant was casual and laid back. The guest began to have an important input and we listened because if that’s what your guests want, you need to evolve.”
The food began to take on a life of its own all the while propelling the restaurant’s prestige. The island itself also began to change, and it became a lot easier to get produce and specialty food products to Owens’ kitchen. “Twenty, thirty years ago your menu had to reflect what you could get”, states Harris frankly. “Now we’ve reached a stage where if Paul wants to do something, he makes a list of what he needs and we bring it in.”
“Just the quality of the produce, it’s changed so much”, exclaims Owens. “It’s hard here, we’re not a seasonal place. We have seasons in terms of fish, but we don’t have game and it’s hard for meat, it’s not like England. Some restaurants around here bring in fish from Europe but I don’t see any need for that. We can get plenty of fish right here like tuna, snapper, barracuda, dolphin (aka mahi-mahi), all our fish is amazing.”
Owens gets herbs and vegetables from the island when he can, but it’s challenging for such a small landmass to supply the volume of people that travel to Barbados every year. It’s impossible for the farmers to keep up. What Owens does import is farm fresh produce from a market in Paris every Thursday, top grade meat from the US, Kobe beef from Japan, and lamb from Whales or New Zealand, depending on the time of year. Not only does Owens bring in food from around the world, but he also travels to different restaurants all over the US and Europe to work in their kitchens and hone his skills.
“I really like to go off and work in new places. Last year I was at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London that has three Michelin stars, and the year before that I was in New York at Le Bernardin. I was just in Miami last week and worked in Dallas as well. I like to do this, go out, get a little inspiration and learn new stuff.”
As Owen’s food became more refined, reinforcing his reputation, the restaurant began to swell to accommodate the volume of customers who were now paying attention. They hired more staff, added more dining areas, expanded the bar, and increased the size of the kitchen. All of a sudden, people knew about The Cliff and it morphed into something more than simply your average restaurant: What was once a meal out now became an experience.
What’s interesting about The Cliff’s gradual expansion is that they never built upwards, to loom over the coastline, but rather spread outwards and down, embedding themselves firmly into the rocky ledge, solidifying the restaurant into the very landscape that inspired their name. The Cliff’s intentions were to create a special setting with outstanding food yet over time, Paul Owens and Brian Ward, with the help of Peter Harris, their dedicated staff and their loyal clientele, all shaped The Cliff to become something altogether bigger than anyone could have ever imagined.