With their new quarterly supper club, Jack Wakelin and Tom Aronica proudly champion Sheffield’s burgeoning independent scene

‘You had to be there.’ It’s a tired out, tried-and-tested cliché of a phrase at the best of times, but bear with me. It’s not my fault. You see, there are occasions – rare though they are – when a plan comes together or an evening falls into place with a certain, flawless style and ease. In the wake of such occasions, you find yourself in the singularly difficult scenario of putting words to an evening that sits quite beyond description or hyperbole. Bench Vol. 1 was just such an occasion, and I promise I’ll do what I can to explain why. But honestly? You just had to be there.

But what is Bench, exactly? A pop-up bar? A nomadic supper club? Some new form of asymmetric dining? Guerrilla hospitality? In truth, Bench is all of those things and then some. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Bench is one of the many things going on in Sheffield right now that’s transforming the city into a bona fide beacon of independent spirit and individual attitude. 

“Customers are no longer customers, but guests. Servers are no longer
servers, but hosts.”

Bench is a simple premise at its core, I suppose: Local hospitality veterans, Jack Wakelin and Tom (Ronnie) Aronica, take over the slick-but-utilitarian, ground-floor lobby of professional idea makers, Peter & Paul’s Testone Factory Studio. They deck said lobby with some mood lighting and a few floral flourishes from fellow Sheffield independents, Swallows and Damsons. And they commit to serving up specially-made, one-of-a-kind small plates and curated cocktails to a single table of select strangers. 

And just like that, the usual barriers of the kitchen pass and the bar top no longer count for anything. All separation vanishes, and the usual Saturday night out becomes something truly unique. Customers are no longer customers, but guests. Servers are no longer servers, but hosts. The whole evening plays out like a soirée among friends, the hustle and bustle of the Saturday night bar replaced by the low-light intimacy of the mid-week date spot. Except it’s neither of those things, it’s the lobby of a design studio.

A playlist of lo-tempo hip hop works its audible magic in the background while Jack and Ronnie provide ample entertainment for the remaining senses. A veritable feast of visual flair and flavour combinations, their one-off menu is stripped back and purposeful. Five drinks. Five dishes. Guests can pick and choose, opting in or out of courses, or simply going all-in and enjoying the ride. Beer and wine are available on request, loosening up the typical stiffness of the average food pairing session.

Despite the unassumingly barebones descriptions offered by the minimal menu, the cocktails on offer are a cavalcade of confident and complex concoctions with clout to spare. Dialing the drinks descriptors back a notch is a neat trick that not only lets the cocktail speak for itself, but also gives Jack the chance to work the room and delve deeper into what it is exactly that he and Ronnie have put together. With such an approach, Jack’s seemingly humble Old Fashioned is elevated from a simple spirit, sugar, water blend to a robust, mustard-washed blanco tequila with a salted melon reduction, melon bitters and burnt lemon essence. Likewise, Ronnie’s five dishes expertly offset the light and playful with dense and complex. From the Waldorf salad atop crispy pork belly, to the chicken and celeriac Yakitori, to the mushroom agnolotti, each dish is a shining example of Bench’s penchant for cross-disciplinary simplicity done perfectly. And that’s the quintessential, quietly confident beauty of it all. With Bench Vol.1, Jack and Ronnie have you drinking cocktails that would sit comfortably on any permanent menu, eating food that would carry a restaurant with ease, and they have you doing it in the lobby of a design studio, with a co-opted Action Bronson beat in the background. It just works. It really, really works.But like I said, to fully appreciate just what it is that Jack and Ronnie have achieved with the first iteration of Bench, you just had to be there. Luckily, with Bench Vol.2 already in the works, you might not have to wait too long for the chance to experience it for yourself. EJ

Instagram: @benchsheffield

Words by Will HALBERT
Image Credits: Will HALBERT & Lara POYNOR