Latest opening: Brightside

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Brightside restaurant roadside dining brand

Related tags Brightside Loungers Alex reilley roadside dining

If its debut site is anything to go by, Loungers looks set to drive the UK's roadside dining renaissance.

What:​ The inaugural site from a fledgling roadside dining brand that’s aiming to fill the gap left by Little Chef and Happy Eater. Brightside’s first restaurant is located in a service station just south of Exeter and offers a wide-ranging menu that features extensive breakfast and brunch options alongside burgers, pizzas, and kids’ dishes.

Who:​ Brightside is part of Loungers, the hugely successful - it has over 200 locations - behind the Lounges and Cosy Club brands. In the driving seat is operations director Antony Doyle, who has worked for Loungers for the past 10 years. The first site may have only opened a few weeks ago, but Doyle, CEO Nick Collins and Loungers co-founder and chairman Alex Reilley are putting their foot down when it comes to expansion with at least five more sites set to open in the South West soon. They are already talking about taking the brand nationwide in the coming years. 

The vibe:​ Once a Little Chef and most recently an American and Mexican inspired roadside diner called Route 5, the space is head and shoulders above what most would expect from a roadside dining venue with a premium, 70s-inspired design that strikes exactly the right balance between the nostalgic and the contemporary. Design details include Formica tables, ribbed glass partitions, wicker lamp shades and parquet flooring. Loungers has taken a bit of a risk on this one, but it’s paid off thanks to its team’s eye for detail and obvious passion for the project.

The food:​ Available all through the day, breakfast and brunch-orientated options are roughly what you’d expect including full English breakfasts, avocado on toast, baked eggs and pancakes. Entitled ‘The Nation’s Favourites’, mains are a little more eclectic taking in chicken katsu curry; spaghetti and meatballs; and vegetarian chilli. Prices are approachable, especially given the brand’s premium feel, with a full English priced at £12.50 and mains costing between £12 and £15. 

To drink:​ Aside from the obvious, the drinks menu includes a line in thick shakes and a surprisingly extensive selection of alcohol that includes cocktails, wines and beer. As one would hope the hard stuff is counterbalanced by a broad range of no-to-low options. 

And another thing:​ From the welcome desk and booths to the loos and back of house areas, the finish on the site is nothing short of stunning (it helps that Loungers directly employs its build teams and uses the same band of subcontractors it has used since the early days of the business). 

Haldon Hill, Exeter, Devon EX6 7XS

Plenty of reasons to look on the Brightside when it comes to roadside dining

Occupying a small, bog-standard service station that's also home to a McDonald's, a Gregg's and a Costa Express, Brightside is a ray of sunshine. The space looks great, the staff are friendly, the service is efficient and the simple menu is well executed and fairly priced. In fact it's difficult to fault any aspect, especially given how uninspiring eating - and especially full-service dining - can be when out on the road. Though its all day breakfasts, pancakes and burgers might not quite be up to Michelin standard, Brightside is certainly worth a detour in our book. 

Loungers is not the only brand looking to help roadside dining get its groove back. Operators of all shapes and sizes are out for a slice of what is expected to be an increasingly lucrative space. Full-service roadside dining was once an important part of the UK restaurant sector - both Little Chef and Happy Eater were big beasts at their peak - but has dwindled away to almost nothing. This is partly due to a lack of effort and investment but can also be attributed to a perceived customer preference for faster eating and drinking experience. Cue the rise of the sad pre-packaged petrol station sandwich as well as a boom in QSR and fast food brands at service stations. 

There was a sense things were starting to change a few years back when more premium QSR brands such as Leon and Tossed started to enter the space but the UK is now in the midst of a roadside revolution.​ Earlier this year upmarket bakery group Gail announced it was looking to open up to 10 drive thru sites in London and the South East, a move that would see it go head-to-head with less premium players including Gregg’s, Starbucks, Costa and Tim Hortons. Pret a Manger - which currently has a relatively small number of stores at service stations - is also understood to be looking to increase its roadside presence as part of a broader strategy to move beyond the high street. 

Unsurprisingly given the prevalence of the car stateside, the latest wave of American fast food brands to cross the pond also see a roadside presence a key part of their rollout strategy with both Wendy’s and Popeyes looking to open drive thrus. Meanwhile, fast-casual restaurant brand PizzaLuxe has said it is looking to ‘shift the stigma’ around what restaurants in the travel space can offer with expansion planned across the UK’s motorway network in the coming years.

Much closer to Brightside in terms of market positioning is Soho House’s upmarket hotel and diner brand Mollie’s Motel & Diner, which recently announced plans to expand to around 100 sites over the next 10 years. Speaking at Restaurant’s R200 conference earlier this week (24 March), Shelley Sandzer’s Ted Schama described the roadside dining space as both ‘resilient and underexploited’, which is the precise opposite to the UK high street at the moment. 

“Operators also like it that these locations are very quantifiable,” he said. “Every spot has a certain number of carbourne visits per day and we’re often talking big numbers. People can soon start to understand what level of traffic is required to make their model work. Alongside this, you have the rise in electric vehicles which will keep people at these locations for longer.” 

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