“ Address: 5 Verulam Road, St Albans, Hertfordshire, AL3 4DA / Tel: 01727 799050 „
Loch Fyne are a chain of seafood restaurants with a shared ideology on sourcing sustainable seafood and providing a good selection of quality food. The 46 restaurants in the chain share the same environmental identity and can be found as far north as Edinburgh and as far south as Portsmouth. The company takes its name from a small sea loch in Scotland, where the owners first started the business in the form of a local roadside oyster bar.
The restaurant in St Albans opened in 2007, in a listed building in the centre of town which was previously a garage. The building was well-converted and its history as an old barn was preserved, with a lot of dark ancient beams on show in the high gabled ceilings, and exposed brickwork adding to the historical feel.
On entering you walk through draft-proofed double doors into a ar area panelled with wood and ancient red brickwork, where you are encouraged to take pre-dinner drinks and after dinner coffee during busy times. This bar is slightly raised and surrounded by a balcony, which gives it a nice separation from the eating area. The restaurant has a good atmosphere, combining lively dining with very tasteful surroundings. In the middle of the restaurant is a central counter where the chefs prepare the fish, and it is lovely to see the brightly lit fish displayed and prepared in front of you before it is sent to the kitchens.
Solid wooden tables and chairs complement the old floorboards and the wood and glass balcony, and are laid out in unsymmetrical groups of four. The square tables can easily be joined together to provide more fleixible seating for larger groups.
A glass wall looks out of the restaurant onto a secluded patio outside the main door, ideal for eating in the summer, despite its close proximity to a busy road. In the summer the restaurant sells fish from a dedicated outdoor counter. This fish counter was open every Saturday in the early days, but now seems to be open at odd times during the summer months.
The toilets are well designed and nicely maintained. It is difficult to see how the tables and toilet can be accessed by those in a wheelchair, as they are on a lower section which is accessed by a short flight of stairs. I suggest calling first if you have mobility issues.
Parking, as in most of St Albans, is difficult and you should look for the nearest public car park. This is indicated on the Loch Fyne website.
I have visited Loch Fyne quite a few times, and in the early days was very impressed by the selection and preparation of the fish. In recent times, however, I have generally been disappointed, and felt that what is a fairly special meal out (around £85 for two people) should be providing better quality and service than is currently offered.
Most recently I tried out a Moules and Beer promotion, but found the Moules small and overcooked - not a patch on the real French versions. The chip and bread portions were tiny, and I was left feeling hungry at the end of the evening. On other occasions I have gone for the lunchtime special offer (£11 for 2 courses and a glass of wine) and found the food adequate but fairly ordinary.
The normal evening menu has provided the most satisfactory meals, with a main course such as Pan-fried fillet of bream with scallops and braised fennel at £16 being absolutely delicious. The vegetables are extra (seasonal vegetables, chips, mash or salad being £2.50 per dish) and this usually takes the cost of the main course to over £20. I have enjoyed starters of smoked salmon, whitebait or potted prawns (all for around £6) and these have been very fresh and well prepared. The smoked kippers and salmon in particular are very good, coming from the company's own smoke houses.
I always enjoy watching rather glamorous groups enjoying the oysters and champagne, or the shellfish platter with whole lobster (£45 for two). This looks lovely, but it comes at a price...
Generally I feel that some of the dishes are rather ordinary for a rather expensive fish restaurant. While I am happy to pay for beautifully cooked fish in a wine sauce, I am less happy to pay £11 for fish and chips or a very basic fish pie. The extras and drinks are proportionally very expensive, and the bill soon mounts up. In addition to this, I have felt that on occasions the food has been poorly cooked (usually over-cooked) and I have had to send it back.
Loch Fyne generally have discounts and special offers such as kids eating free during the school holidays. Moules and Beer nights or Fish and Chip night for a set price (usually £12) are also successful at getting clients through the door. The lunchtime deals are set up to tempt weekday diners, offering two courses plus a glass of wine for £11.
There is a kids menu for £6 for two courses, and I have seen a poster advertising that kids eat free on weekends. Unfortunately both of my children would rather be impaled on a fish hook than eat fish, so I have not availed myself of these opportunities.
Service in the St Albans branch has always been extremely mixed. On some occasions (usually on a Friday or Saturday night) we have got excellent service, with professional and charming waiters.
During the week we have encountered such sub-standard service that I have had to write a letter of complaint. The manager was very understanding and gave me some vouchers in compensation, but I still feel that employing waitresses who do not have a basic grasp of English, including an understanding of English beers and ciders, is a mistake.
Many of my students are employed by Loch Fyne and, without going into details, I get the definite impression that Loch Fyne do not treat their employees well. In 2008 Loch Fyne Restaurants was criticized by the BBC for allegedly paying their waiting staff a base salary below the minimum wage, in an article called 'Loch Fyne wages 'below minimum'.
As a non-meat eater I was delighted to see Loch Fyne opening in St Albans, but over the years I have found the quality gradually declining, and some of the prices very high for what is served.
I hope that they undergo a bit of a revamp - it is unusual to see a restaurant dedicated to a mainly fish menu, and I would be sorry to see it go due to declining standards.