That Sheffield’s coolest bar owners, the Rockingham Group (RG), has opened a restaurant is unsurprising. At its cocktail den Public (Observer Food Monthly’s best bar 2018), chef Tom Aronica’s food has wowed regulars as readily as Jack Wakelin’s stellar drinks.
But owners James Hill and James O’Hara’s restaurant (café, insists O’Hara), is unusual. RG has tended to utilise quirky historic buildings (public toilets, 1920s snooker halls), but Ambulo occupies the Millennium Gallery café, previously a contract-catering canteen. In this minimalist glass-fronted box, now softened with plants, retro banquettes and pastel-turquoise corrugated panelling, the RG team has created a flexible diner that does a lot – without fobbing anyone off.
The menu – breakfasts, sandwiches, topped crumpets, small plates – runs day and night. You can order a bowl of granola at 10pm. You can eat roast hake at 11am. You can have a coffee or drop £100 across a menu that, with ex-Claridge’s and Manchester House-man Aronica as head chef, delivers quality that (as with contemporaries like Jöro or Tamper) still feels fresh in Sheffield.
Demographically, Ambulo (‘to wander’ in Latin), is similarly fleet. Widely spaced tables allow family-friendly buggy access. But this is a venue so hip that Matt Helders – Arctic Monkeys drummer and O’Hara’s best mate– is a co-owner (Ambulo is a separate business to RG). Helders has worked on everything from staff uniforms to the music and, at night, Ambulo is lit by pink neon strips inspired by the Blade Runner-quality of Helders’ now home, Los Angeles.
If Ambulo has stylistic forerunners, such as Canteen, its genesis, its rationale, is very Sheffield. In art and music (O’Hara also runs the Tramlines festival), Sheffield has always been fiercely modern and independent. In the one-time People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, the idea that culture should be democratic and affordable persists.
Ambulo is an attempt to channel that attitude in food. O’Hara sees Sheffield, with its thriving creative industries, two universities and pockets of wealthy professionals, as ‘untapped’. It’s a city ignored by many national brands where venues like Ambulo can develop a distinct Sheffield style: world class food without pretentiousness.
From doing all the baking in-house to serving batch-mixed cocktails created by Wakelin and tap wines from Uncharted Wines, Ambulo has been designed to provide consistent quality and quick service, while maintaining a workable GP. Essentially, it is a high-volume Public (Ambulo did 423 covers on its opening day in February).
Key to that early popularity, believes O’Hara, is Ambulo’s avoidance of opaque foodie jargon. For instance, you won’t find any close detail about Ambulo’s coffee on the menu (grown at a Peruvian all-female co-op, roasted at Huddersfield’s terrific Dark Woods). Instead, Ambulo simply offers six recognisable coffees. The product is left to speak for itself: “There’s no snobbery to what we do. We want to make nice things accessible and strip away any intimidating bullshit.”
In that context, operating in a public building makes sense – business-wise, too. Ambulo has a five-year service agreement with Museums Sheffield (MS). MS receives 12.5% of Ambulo’s turnover (in lieu of rent, that also covers rates, utilities, etc) and, for an initial £150,000 to £200,000 investment, Ambulo has bagged a well-located, 80-cover city-centre site. “There’s no better incentive to get Ambulo rammed than that a chunk of turnover won’t go to a landlord outside Sheffield, but to Museums Sheffield. It can be a massive win for the city,” says O’Hara.
Staffing all-day venues is a learning curve and Ambulo (latest average spend, £8.20), will only succeed if people use it as a restaurant, not a coffee shop. “It’s a challenge but if the first 10 days are anything to go by, we’ll hit fifth year turnover predictions in the first year,” says O’Hara.
In fact, a second Ambulo will open at Weston Park Museum in May. “We can make them exciting and increase visitors to galleries,” he adds. “I’m sure people are booking and going, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’s on upstairs, let’s have a look’.” O’Hara starts laughing: “What I’m trying to say is: Ambulo’s as good as Leonardo da Vinci."
On the menu
Kedgeree soldiers, soft-boiled eggs, curry mayo £7.50
Korean fried chicken crumpet £7
Shawarma spiced cauliflower, fattoush salad, hazelnuts £9
Buttermilk rabbit, tarragon mayo, cornichons £6.50
Roast hake, XO brown shrimp noisette, Tenderstem broccoli £17.50
Moss Valley pork chop, Charlotte potato, preserved lemon, Cavolo Nero £18
Millennium Gallery, Arundel Gate, Sheffield