The fisherman who opened his own Devon fish restaurant
- Credit: Plymouth Boat Trips
Seafood straight from the boat and a speciality rum bar, it’s the perfect mix for a restaurant housed in Plymouth’s 19th century Navy victualing yard
“I’m a glutton for punishment!”. Fisherman Ben Squire says he was crazy to take on something new, but when the opportunity to open a fish restaurant and rum bar in the heart of Plymouth’s Royal William Yard came up, he didn’t take too much persuasion.
Ben operates seven commercial fishing boats from Plymouth, as well as a fleet of passenger boats and ferries. His family-run Plymouth Boat Trips business also looks after the marina at Royal William Yard. On top of that, he has the Boathouse Café, a seafood café, bar and takeaway situated alongside the Barbican.
So, why not cast the net just that little bit further? As he says: “I’m passionate about catching, cooking and eating fish.”
It helped of course that he managed to get Steve Page to join him as a partner in The Hook & Line restaurant, which opened at the yard last spring. Ben is a hospitality pro - with a penchant for rum.
The Hook & Line offers seafood dishes, using catch landed from its own boats, along with a speciality bar that serves a host of rums from around the world. It’s located within the limestone and granite walls of a former 19th century slaughterhouse, one of the historic buildings that formed the imposing Grade I-listed Royal Navy victualling yard.
Both Ben and Steve hail from Plymouth, so have a natural affinity with and passion for the ocean city.
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But a fisherman opening a seafood restaurant? Isn’t there an old wives’ tale that fishermen don’t like eating fish?
“I love my fish!” Ben declares. “Fish is really good for you, it’s wild food – it’s a great thing.” His first foray into catering was when he converted his fishing store on the quay into the Boathouse Café. It serves seafood which is landed straight from his boats on the quayside. He likes to take people out on fishing trips before bringing them back to shore to cook their catch together. Families gather around long trestle tables, right on the waterside by the Boathouse, where they have fun, learning how to fillet and cook the fish they’ve caught.
When Emily Handslip, a director for Urban Splash, the company behind the regeneration of Royal William Yard, came across Ben doing his cooking class she suggested he open a seafood restaurant in one of the yard’s empty buildings.
Ben was tempted but knew he need a great manager onboard – so he put the suggestion to Steve while the two were working on a boat together. They shook hands on the spot.
Steve was manager at the Boathouse. He’d previously left Plymouth for several years, developing his hospitality career, before coming back to the city. He has childhood memories of walking past the fish market with his grandparents and eating fish and chips on the quay, but it wasn’t until he came home that the seafood bug really hit. It was seeing the fish coming straight to the Boathouse kitchen from Ben’s boats. “You can’t get much fresher than that!” he says.
Having a dedicated seafood restaurant at the Yard made perfect sense, he says – especially when you add in the rum. He had long wanted to launch his own unique bar and rum offers plenty of inspiration. It can be spiced, tropical or herbaceous, it combines a myriad of flavour profiles and can be matched with many pairings.
There’s a sense of coming full circle too, as Hailey Cattle from Urban Splash says: “Royal William Yard has always had a deep connection with food, drink and the sea; these themes are rooted in its purpose, past and present. It was built in the 1800s as a British Navy victualling facility, which was a place where the Navy’s food, drink and supplies were processed.”
Rum was the drink of choice and was stored at the yard in Clarence House, and a team of archaeologists even uncovered a historic rum tasting ladle at the site, she adds.
The Hook & Line opened last year, quickly adapting to coronavirus by offering takeaway service and also fish boxes with recipes for people to cook at home.
Both have been a hit, their success no doubt due to the guiding light in the kitchen.
Head chef Amber Lau lives and breathes seafood. She’s “amazing”, say Ben and Steve. They can’t quite believe that someone so suited to The Hook & Line has landed in its kitchen and brought a talented team with her.
Ben says: “In her interview for the job Amber’s passion for fish and fishing was on a par with me. She even has her own boat and goes out on her days off. She’s nuts about fishing - and that’s where the passion comes from in the kitchen.”
Steve’s recommended rums
1. Bumbu, Louisiana: A deliciously sweet, spiced rum evolved from a 16th century original recipe. Vanilla, banana and caramel flavours run through every drop.
2. Devon Rum, Devon Rum Company: A wonderful, locally-produced rum. A little less sweet than other spiced rums, by omitting the vanilla, the flavours of clove, aniseed and cinnamon shine through, leaving a rich caramel molasses finish.
3. Kirk & Sweeney, 12 Year Anejo, Dominican Republic: Not for the faint-hearted, this tipple is a must for any bourbon lover. Distilled in oak barrels, the nose is reminiscent of opening a box of Cuban cigars for the first time. Thick caramel, honey and redcurrants are balanced with subtle candied orange and wood tannins. Perfect enjoyed by an open fire.
4. Ambassador Diplomatico, Venezuela: My ultimate favourite, Diplomatico’s flagship rum is packed with aromas of port and dried fruit. Expect a ripe sweetness followed by a clean oak finish. High quality does come with a high price, but a little indulgence doesn’t hurt every now and again!
Ben’s favourite local fish for spring
1. Spring means the mackerel run off the Devon coast. An oily, flavoursome fish, rich in omega 3, mackerel is good for you and tastes great. Simply grill or blend with horseradish and spring onion into a smooth pate.
2. Turbot is the king of the flat fish. Caught locally, off our shores, it’s a great tasting, white fish that can be cooked in a variety of ways, my favourite being pan-fried and drizzled with hollandaise sauce.
3. A delicious local delicacy, South West scallops start hitting their prime at this time of year. Sweet and succulent, they’re the ultimate fast food, taking just minutes to pan-fry and taste especially good paired with full flavoured chorizo.
4. April is the time to catch sea bass in the South West and this is always a popular one on our menu. A flavoursome white fish that works really well wrapped in baking paper or foil and steamed with ginger, soy sauce and spring onions.