The Mulberry Tree in Boughton Monchelsea, Kent, is housed in a new-build property set on the site of a former pub. Proprietor Karen Williams bought the property from a previous owner who had been trying to convert it into a block of apartments but was refused planning permission after local residents waged a campaign against him.
After Williams took over the derelict pub wanting to turn it into a food-led operation, her plans were met with similar opposition by local residents, who campaigned for it to remain a wet-led local. It took her two attempts and a year to be granted planning permission from the local council until she was able to convert the property into a restaurant.
Williams, who appointed architect acquaintance Taylor Seymour to oversee the project, says she had fairly fixed ideas for the restaurant's layout. "I wanted a central bar, with separate dining rooms. I didn't want just one big room as I felt that smaller areas would create a more welcoming environment," she says. "It was very difficult doing everything on paper and it took a lot of imagination and vision to picture the finished product. We changed the lighting after we opened as that was one of the hardest things to get right from paper and is one of the most important."
Mentor Roy Ackerman says Williams's approach to the lighting is "absolutely right". He says: "Lighting and flooring are two of the most important elements of any design."
Williams adds that it took nearly two years for her to get a real feel for the restaurant. When the Mulberry Tree first launched, she was trying to create a casual, pub-dining atmosphere to reflect its previous history. "But we quickly embraced the fact that we are a destination restaurant and bar and have subtly changed the decor accordingly to have a more upmarket and glamorous feel," she says.
Ackerman adds that taking a softly-softly approach and gradually changing the decor is the best way to establish a restaurant. "The fact that it has taken two years for Karen to get a feel for it can only be a good thing as the more the restaurant develops in her character, the better," he says." It has also, of course, given her a chance to gauge the style and level of the restaurant."
At the beginning of this year, Williams redecorated the restaurant by putting wallpaper up on feature walls in a bid to make the dining room more cosy, warm and inviting. "Before, there was just paint on the walls, which could appear a little stark with the wooden flooring," she explains.
The restaurant's alfresco area was purposely situated at the back of the property meaning all guests enter and exit through the main entrance, making things far more controllable during the summer months.
Williams reveals that there are plans to extend the property, which will be paid for by the business out of cash-flow. "We are discussing the idea of extending our private dining room, which currently holds 12 people, as we have so many requests for a private room accommodating larger numbers," she says. "Any extension would possibly also include opening up the kitchen to feature a viewing area or chef's table."
Ackerman says opening up the kitchen would be an excellent idea. "Head chef Alan Irwin and his team are neat and work well together and would present an interesting addition to the restaurant," he says.
"A larger private room would also help as Karen has established a demand for this and there's nothing worse than using the restaurant in its entirety for a private reception, thereby limiting availability for other diners.
"I'm sure there will be further changes over the years to come as Karen finally settles into the established restaurant the Mulberry Tree deserves to be."
The Mulberry Tree has been shortlisted as one of 10 finalists in the inaugural Kent Restaurant Awards.
The nomination rounds up a successful year for the restaurant, which was also named the regional winner for the South-east by The Good Food Guide and Restaurant of the Year by website Produced in Kent.
Proprietor Karen Williams is delighted. "Each of the 10 finalists will be visited by the judging panel and assessed, with the winner being announced in January," she says.
Williams has introduced a new wine list which has been compiled together with supplier Bibendum. "We have added a lighter red, a French Pinot Noir, owing to customer requests, and expanded the list with quirky and interesting wines including a Greek red and white which sold out on the first weekend," she says.
The Mulberry Tree has introduced 10 new piglets and has divided the field in half to add a further 14 pigs. Head chef Alan Irwin is also in discussions with a local turkey farmer over the possibility of rearing turkeys next year.
You can view a video interview with Mulberry Tree proprietor Karen Williams on Cool Cucumber TV, a new online food magazine created by Roy Ackerman. To view the video go towww.coolcucumber.tvand click on programme seven.