The long read: Inside story of Harrogate's best-loved restaurant William & Vics

There are not too many things you can rely on in life but, when it comes to dining out in Harrogate, there is one place which has stood the test of time - William & Victoria. Graham Chalmers spoke to its popular co-owner David Straker who is celebrating 30 years of welcoming customers with a smile.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 27th May 2022, 11:24 am
Updated Friday, 27th May 2022, 11:28 am

A popular figure behind the success of, perhaps, Harrogate’s most-loved restaurant is celebrating 30 years at the helm.

In the eyes of many who know their stuff about the town, William & Victoria is simply one of those things which make Harrogate a special place to live.

“It’s been an absolute privilege to welcome people to William & Vics in Harrogate all these years,” said co-owner David Straker.

It turns out the feeling is mutual in what is the local food and drink scene’s longest-running love affair.

“It’s been an absolute privilege to welcome people to William & Vics all these years,” said co-owner David Straker, who has played the role of front of house to perfection for three decades.

“I wouldn’t change any of it. I still love coming to work each day. William & Vics is my life.”

One half of a husband-and-wife team, David admits a lot has changed since he and Jo first opened the bar-bistro on Cold Bath Road back in 1992, even if its comfortingly traditional but relaxed atmosphere remains intact.

“There were far fewer restaurants in Harrogate back then but the town had fewer tourists and people ate out less often,” said David.

“I noticed that the Drum & Monkey in Montpellier Gardens was always very busy and its owner always seemed to be there to greet diners. It’s something I’ve tried to do, too. In fact, our regulars say they are surprised if they don’t see me.”

Having studied hotel management at college in Oxford, the young David moved to Harrogate after a spell in city wine bars in London.

“We weren’t encouraged to speak to customers; it was all high turnover in the lunchtime trade. But I realised Harrogate was a town, not a city.

“Having regular customers is paramount to us. It’s local trade which has kept us going.

“It’s all about familiarity and friendliness, as well as great food and drink.

“It’s a very personal business. People expect you to remember what dishes they like best when they come back.”

William & Vics may appear a reassuring oasis of relaxed calm in the hurly burly of modern life but the hospitality sector is tough, David said.

“It’s a great industry to work in but it’s always full on. In 30 years I’ve only managed to go away for a fortnight’s holiday twice,” he said. “It’s been a labour of love but it’s a massive commitment.”

If one word could sum up the secret of the restaurant’s unique status in Harrogate life, it’s teamwork, says David.

“It’s not really about me, it’s about every single member of staff,” he adds. “We have been lucky to have amazing people round us like Sophie who has worked with us for 20 years.

“We like to work with nice people. We all want to enjoy working here.”

Staff are clearly important to any restaurant but it’s the relationship between David and Jo which lies at the heart of William & Vics.

“It’s great to work with Jo. I’m more at the coal face, so to speak, while Jo is in charge behind the scenes and directs all our marketing, he said. “We are always bouncing ideas off each other.”

If Harrogate can’t seem to get enough of this characterful dining out spot and watering hole for fine wine, David and Jo can’t get enough of Harrogate itself - despite the long hours and hard work.

Now aged 53, when he arrived in town as a 23-year-old, longevity was not part of David’s game plan at first.

But Harrogate has a habit of getting in your blood.

Having raised a family of three with Jo, David now can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“Cold Bath Road is a brilliant road to be based on,” he said. “It has changed a lot over the years but it has such a vibrant independent scene now.

“We both love Harrogate. It’s a unique place. Where is better?

"We have made so many friends through the restaurant. It’s quite amazing how many people you get to know.

“But we’d be nothing without the loyalty of our regular customers.”

David Straker of William & Vics on Harrogate...

These have been challenging times for the hospitality industry - the decline of the high street, the onset of Covid and, now, the cost of living crisis.

Despite its long-running success, even Harrogate’s William & Vics restaurant has not been in a position to ignore the trends.

But co-owner David Straker remains positive about the future.

“You have to battle for everything you get in this industry,” he said.

“During Covid we had to go online to survive, we had no choice.

“Right now, the hardest thing for us, apart from the rising cost of fuel and food, is finding staff.

“We’ve been lucky that way but we know others in the town are struggling.

“But I am positive about the future overall in Harrogate.

“Since lockdown ended we have been seeing a lot of tourists.

“People are still making up for lost time since Covid.

“The surge in tourism really began after the Tour de France in 2014 which firmly put Yorkshire and Harrogate on the map.

“Harrogate is a really good destination town now with a lot to offer visitors.

“Our independent sector is very strong and there’s plenty of things to do.”

William & Vics: How a traditional bistro has adapted to change

Popular favourite Lamb Henry may still be on the menu at Williams & Victoria 30 years on but it would be a mistake to think this quintessentially Harrogate bistro had not changed in all that time.

It was a nervous moment for both owners and customers when it closed for a few months in 2015 for a majo refurbishment.

They needn’t have worried. When the restaurant reopened with a freshened-up layout, the atmosphere was still there, as were the British classics on the menu.

Perhaps, the biggest change in the food and drink industry owners Jo and David Straker have successfully adapted to is the rise of the internet.

David said: “I had resisted it for a long time but, during the pandemic, we finally put in an online booking system.

“When we first opened William & Vics, customers wouldn’t even leave their phone numbers.

“When people went out then it was more of an occasion.

“They would even dress up for it.

“But I’m glad we changed. The new system has totally worked.”

Factfile: William & Victoria:

Address: 6 Cold Bath Road, Harrogate.

Phone: 01423-506883.