How the Cotswolds' Bull hotel turns the conventional restaurant model on its head

14 March 2024 by

Relaxed, family-style dining with a theatrical experience is the modus operandi at the Bull in Burford

Picture this: giant bowls of roast potatoes, platters of succulent beef and pork slathered in gravy, and more veg than you could grow in the average English garden spilling from bowls and plates.

Fifteen people are sat around a vast wooden banquet table, passing jugs of gravy and trays of cauliflower cheese, laughing as families do when they're brought together by food. Except they're not family, and this isn't someone's home. This is Bull, a new hotel in Burford at the gateway to the Cotswolds, and this is its communal Sunday dining experience, Horn.

Communal seating – where guests eat and drink at a shared table – isn't a new concept. Wagamama has been doing it for years and plenty of coffee shops and bars have larger tables where guests rub shoulders with one another as they drink and dine. But Bull's offering is a little different: guests don't just share the space, they share the actual food. Everyone is seated together at the same time, and vast vessels are paraded from the kitchen to the table and placed in the middle with serving spoons and tongs.

Diners, who come from all walks of life – Londoners up for a weekend away, locals who have come to see what the fuss is about, and visitors from the US and beyond – are flung together, greeted with a "thanks for coming to our social experiment", and encouraged to talk and get to know one another. For a British hotel in the very British countryside, it's a bold move.

Creative thinking

But Matthew Freud, owner of Bull and the brains behind the concept, is not known for being bland. He is, after all, the great grandson of Sigmund Freud and owner of PR firm Freud Communications. And there's little surprise that the dining concept here is a little bit out there, as the hotel itself is truly remarkable. The 18-bedroom hotel is set inside a 17th-century coaching inn and has one of the most astonishing art collections for a hotel in the UK. There's a Banksy hanging in reception, a Grayson Perry presiding over the dining room in Horn, a Salvador Dalí over the fireplace in the breakfast room and several Damien Hirsts dotted throughout the corridors – all on display without red velvet rope or alarms.

Matthew says it was Covid-19 that partly inspired Horn's communal dining concept: "I thought people are going to want experiences and the thing that most of us were missing really intently was contact with other people, so I thought I'd create something where people can come and connect."

There are numerous opportunities for connection around Bull, and not just because the artwork is a talking point. It bills itself as a "curious coaching inn", a play on words that alludes to its history as an actual coaching inn, but also its programme of creative coaching in various pursuits, from tile painting to choir singing and cooking.

But for the communal dining, another aspect encouraged Matthew to change things up: "I am always struck by how intrusive service is. If you go to a restaurant, you're going to be interrupted between 12 and 20 times. You'll be shown to your table, you'll be asked whether you want still or sparkling water, then they'll bring in menus and come back and tell you the specials, then give you another minute and come and take the order.

"Whereas if you go to someone's house for a meal, you'll sit down and at some point someone will go ‘oh, this food is lovely'. The food is a completely integral part of the experience, but it doesn't dictate the terms by which people are experiencing it."

There has been, however, a tweak to its concept. After several months of offering only communal dining with no private tables at all, there are now bookings to be made for those who want to dine separately. Operations manager Rebecca Riley says that guests who experienced Horn love it – the feedback afterwards was always glowing – but there was often a reticence to book when staff explained the concept. "Explaining how it works seemed to put a lot of people off," she explains.

George Freud, a director at Bull and son of Matthew, says: "Naturally, not all diners are familiar with or open to the idea of sharing a table with strangers – it's still a relatively novel concept. This shift will provide our guests with the freedom to select seating options based on their mood and desired level of interaction with others. We love the evolving demands for communal dining experiences, but as the main restaurant in our hotel, it is important to ensure there is something for everyone."

Cooking for a crowd

The other challenging practicality was finding the right people to do the cooking. "A kitchen that's set up to produce a restaurant menu is totally different to a kitchen at home," Matthew explains. "And it turns out if you ask people who know how to cook a menu to just cook a big meal, they get confused and start cooking stuff off so that it's ready and just needs finishing. But they don't need to do that. So that's still a struggle, trying to get people to unlearn everything they've learned about cooking in the restaurant kitchen."

When asked about how they manage their teams and ensure everybody knows where they should be and when, Matthew jokes: "That would imply that we know what we're doing and how we're supposed to do it. It's a very organic process of working it out."

Despite this, it all seems to come together, and guests regularly sit chatting at the table for hours after their meal, finishing bottles of wine and picking at the last of the dessert bowl.

Guest Koren Byrne-Hunte, who had taken herself for a solo break at Bull and dined in Horn in late January, says: "I almost let the threat of real human connection put me off, but I'm so glad I didn't. The meal and company exceeded all my expectations. The food was fantastic and the conversation flowed. There was no small talk – thankfully – and plenty of laughter. After awkwardly sitting down with strangers, by the end we left with parting hugs. It really did feel like a family meal."

Horn isn't Bull's only communal dining experience –in fact, almost all of its F&B venues have a communal element. There's Hiro, a Japanese omakase restaurant where guests are seated at a bar set around the kitchen space and the breakfast room has one large table for 12 as well as chairs by the fireplace for a more relaxed breakfast. There's plenty of chatter between guests each morning, so the concept of interaction and connection plays out in multiple spaces.

And then there's Wild, the hotel's most theatrical venue, set inside a canvas tent in the sun-trap garden. A copper table is hollowed out in the middle to make space for a huge fire-powered grill, and up to eight guests can sit around it, watching the chefs prepare each course in front of them on the flames. There's chatter about the food and the fire throughout, and at the end there's a ‘ceremonial burning' as the bamboo plates are offered to the flames. As with Horn, guests are regularly left to their own devices once the meal is over, often sitting around the fire for hours afterwards to continue conversation as the embers fade.

The emphasis is very much on shared experience, flipping the traditional restaurant hierarchy, where waiting staff are no longer just servers but facilitators and controllers of an often surprising and almost ceremonial experience.

"Bull is trying to be a democratic place with far fewer boundaries between the people who work there and the people who stay there," says Matthew. And while not every single guest will appreciate it, it certainly feels like that has been achieved.

The Bull's F&B


Covers: 10-12

Offering: A tasting menu of fire-based cooking

Open: Friday to Sunday

Price: £80 per person


Covers: 36

Offering: Family-style communal dining

Open: Sundays only

Price: £50 per person


Covers: 10-12

Offering: Omakase tasting menu

Open: Tuesday to Saturday

Price: £200 per person


Offering: Intimate cocktail lounge with bar seating and low tables

Open: Daily


Offering: All-day menu served in an outdoor courtyard

Open: Daily during spring/summer, weather permitting


Covers: 12-18

Offering: Breakfast room for overnight guests plus an all-day menu for visitors

Open: Daily

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