breaking news

Old Schoolhouse won’t be resting on its laurels

August 18th, 2017 | by LCN Editor
Old Schoolhouse won’t be resting on its laurels
Venue Spotlight

Named LCN’s Restaurant of the Year for 2017, The Old Schoolhouse at Comber has always developed its offering to keep pace with changing times. And next in line for refurbishment are the venue’s eight award-winning guest rooms…

Trading for more than three decades, the much-revered Old Schoolhouse restaurant near Comber remains a model for innovation and reinvention as it continues to adapt to the changing face of fashion and the notoriously fickle tastes of the dining public.

In its earliest days, the old building at Castle Espie really was a schoolhouse. It became a restaurant in the early 80s when it was acquired by Avril and Terry Brown, two very well-known figures in the NI hospitality trade at the time. Avril had been head chef in the La Mon House hotel at Castlereagh for 15 years and Terry had enjoyed a successful career as a manager with Grand Metropolitan, looking after a number of prestigious hotels for the group, including the Stormont in Belfast.

In short order, the pair made a success of their new venture, establishing its popularity at a time when hospitality venues often found themselves on the receiving end of the relentless political and civil unrest that characterised those years.

A new era dawned at the Old Schoolhouse about four years ago when Avril and Terry’s son, Will – himself an accomplished chef with extensive experience in some of London’s most prestigious kitchens – returned to Comber and began to help shape a fresh vision for the family business.

In 2013, a six-figure sum was invested to refurbish the restaurant and create the chic interior design that guests enjoy today.

“Ultimately, what I want is to be running one of the most beautiful restaurants in the country, serving great food and good wine,” Will said at the time.

These days, Will manages the business with help from his fiancée, Corinna Eccles, and speaking this month, she said that it had been “a lovely surprise” to learn that the Old Schoolhouse had been named as LCN Restaurant of the Year 2017, particularly in light of the stiff competition in the category this year.

Corinna, who has been with Will for the last five years, revealed that business has been strong at the Old Schoolhouse since the renovations were completed in 2013.

“People are always going to want to try something at the start when it’s new,” she added. “So after we renovated, it was very busy, but people kept on coming to us and we have a lot of regular customers now that support us very well.”

Corinna was studying law when she first met Will and after finishing her degree, she went on to complete a Masters. The couple now have two small children and Corinna works in the restaurant at the weekends:

“The business here is growing all the time and the weekends are now the busiest,” she said. “But it’s important for us to attract people in during the week as well. We’re putting on set lunch and dinner menus at the minute from Wednesday to Friday to help with that and it’s gone down very well with our customers. The menus are great, we have three starters, three mains and three desserts and Will tries to change it every few days to that if you come back, you’re not just being offered the same things.”

The restaurant itself has collected an array of awards including two AA rosettes and a Michelin Bib Gourmand for the last three years. This year, as well as the LCN accolade, The Old Schoolhouse was named AA Guest Accommodation of the Year in NI.

“Will isn’t someone who sits on his laurels,” said Corinna. “He’s constantly striving for the best, you have to keep pushing on.”

The next big priority at The Old Schoolhouse centres on its eight luxury guest rooms. These were added to the property in 1999 and now, they are earmarked for a revamp.

“We recently refurbished one of them just to help us see what was involved and now we hope to do the other seven,” explained Corinna. “This is a big part of the business. We have people who come to us just because of the setting. They can have a meal and stay overnight on the shores of Strangford Lough and it’s great to be able to offer them that.”

Will and Corinna hope to be able to begin work on refurbishing the guestrooms at the start of next year. They’ll be doing two rooms at a time in order to minimise disruption to the restaurant business which, says Corinna, won’t be closing during the renovations.


Our picture at the top shows Corinna Eccles and Will Brown with their LCN Restaurant of the Year award.



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