Breakfast at Britain's grumpiest cafe: with zero tolerance for vegans, allergies or gluten-free fads

Clive Cobb is the formidable owner of the Rousdon Village Bakery in Rousdon
Clive Cobb is the formidable owner of the Rousdon Village Bakery in Rousdon Credit: JAY WILLIAMS 

No substitutions. No side orders. No seasoning. No vegan. And don’t ask for the music to be turned down. These are some of the rules listed outside the Rousdon Village Bakery near Lyme Regis in Dorset, along with the following allergy information: “we only cook in butter; our muesli contains lots of nuts; we produce bread with gluten”. 

If you’re happy to go along with this, you will enjoy good coffee and lovingly prepared food; if you disobey and ask for an extra sausage, you might as well show yourself out. “If you want to design your own food, do it at home,” grumbles Clive Cobb, the owner and head chef of what is surely Britain’s strictest restaurant. 

With so little flexibility, it’s hardly surprising that Tripadvisor contains some pretty damning reviews. Cobb has been described as “obnoxious”, “discriminatory” and “VERY rude”. 

“Too mad for words,” writes one disgruntled visitor; “DO NOT go here,” warns another. I first heard about the bakery a few months ago when a friend complained that he’d received a flat “no” when asking for his eggs scrambled rather than fried. “It’s just not what you expect at a restaurant,” he said. 

Yet Cobb has set out to do the unexpected. His aim at Rousdon Village Bakery is to build a profitable brand by stepping away from the culture of entitlement that has become so ingrained in Britain. “In the Fifties and Sixties, you didn’t expect restaurants to cater for your foibles but now it’s gone too far the other way and it lowers standards,” he says, straightening his apron.

His zero tolerance policy towards allergies and veganism appears harsh in a world where we all tamper with menus, but it allows Cobb to run a profitable business using local suppliers with as little waste as possible. “It’s as if entitlement is a rule,” he sighs. “When I say that I don’t do vegan they want to report me. But I don’t go into a vegan restaurant and ask what the meat option is.” 

Credit: Tripadvisor

When I visit at 9am on a Sunday, it’s clear that Cobb’s refusal to bow to the whims and fancies of his customers isn’t losing him business. The eight tables are packed with people enjoying milkshakes and his version of the egg McMuffin, served with his overnight roasted pesto tomatoes. “McDonald’s can’t cook runny eggs; I can,” he explains. 

His regulars don’t seem to mind that they have to order their coffee at the machine, their food at the kitchen and help themselves to cutlery. They don’t ask Cobb to change his creations; he’s a local legend as far as they’re concerned. According to the bakery’s contactless payment system, almost 75 per cent of his customers are return visitors.

“A real breath of fresh air”, gushes one Facebook fan, “what you see is what you get, and I love that”, writes another. Even my friend has embraced the rules and now rushes through the doors first thing, before Cobb’s freshly baked sourdough sells out. By 2pm, when he closes up, he will have cooked around 100 breakfasts. “We’re busy, which is confirmation that we’re doing the right thing,” he says. 

For 40 years, he worked in advertising in London; as creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi and then running his own agency handling brands such as Coca Cola. “Soho was where you networked – for me Kettner’s, Bar Italia and Gerry’s Club were the equivalent of the internet,” he recalls. But he watched in dismay as chain restaurants arrived in the area: “London was full of little villages but the whole place was losing its individuality,” he says. “Everything was becoming the same.”

Cobb’s plan hadn’t been to throw himself into the West country restaurant scene. He wanted to retire and live a quiet life by the sea. But a few months after moving to Lyme Regis, his pension fund went bust and he had to think again. He set up an art gallery with his wife, Lucy, which failed, and then they took the lease on a spider-filled conservatory overlooking the sea, and set up a fish restaurant.

A sign at the Rousdon Village Bakery Credit: JAY WILLIAMS 

“We put tablecloths on the tables, long stem glasses, candles and the view was brilliant,” he says. “I’d go and meet the boats at the harbour at 6am and we’d serve a five-course menu for £30. When people said, ‘my boyfriend doesn’t like fish…’ I’d say, ‘get a new boyfriend, we’re a fish restaurant’.” 

For four summer seasons the restaurant was stuffed to the gills, then the site was redeveloped and subsequently bought by chef Mark Hix, who turned it into Hix Oyster & Fish House. Cobb, bitten by the catering bug, opened a bakery, the Town Mill, which brought artisan bread and good coffee to Lyme Regis but he “messed up by growing too large”. 

He sold up and turned his attention to transforming the redundant petrol station opposite his home in Rousdon into a community hub, run on the same principals as the fish restaurant. “It’s called village economics; small is beautiful,” he says. “I wanted there to be a culture of ‘enoughness’: my local suppliers only have a certain amount of produce, I only have a certain number of tables.”

The interior personifies this mantra: dark painted walls, sparse menus, open plan kitchen, farmhouse-style tables with bench seating. Coffee is served in locally made earthenware, food on wooden boards. “Everything here is for a reason; the pictures aren’t hung just to fill up space, they’re of locals,” Cobb says. “The best brands are a spiritual experience, and that’s what I want this to be.” 

His suppliers are trendy regional farmers: salad is from Trill Farm, owned by Romy Fraser, founder of Neal’s Yard Remedies; eggs are from Haye Farm, which belongs to Harry Boglione, whose parents own Petersham Nurseries in Richmond. “Harry, his wife Emily and their kids come here every weekend,” Cobb says. He’s not sanctimonious about everything being organic and homegrown, though; the fishfingers, he admits, are Birds Eye and his brioche is from Tesco, as “it’s better than we can make it”.

Clive is in the kitchen six days a week Credit: JAY WILLIAMS 

If other small businesses would only stop trying to cater to everyone, they could become more profitable, he says. He doesn’t care that he runs out of bread every day and that there’s aren’t always enough tables or car-parking spaces. Chaos works, he insists; you only have to look at the demise of chain restaurants to know that consistency is not the solution.

“Look at Patisserie Valerie; it used to be a tiny place on Old Compton Street in Soho; you didn’t know who was sitting down, who was buying a cake – it was a mess, but it was filled with excitement.” His staff are part of the brand, he says, and understand why they must enforce certain rules. “It’s like a theatre; I cast them in roles and I don’t pay them minimum wage. I want this to be an important part of their career.” 

Cobb is turning 73 next year and he’s still hard at work in the kitchen six mornings a week. He’s writing a book about village economics and opening an outdoor rotisserie in the former garage forecourt, for takeaway roast dinners. He also has his eye on a pub in Lyme Regis. 

For all his gruffness, Cobb has a soft side. He tries to ignore the negative reviews on TripAdvisor but he admits that they do trouble him. “Like everyone, I want to be loved and some people don’t love me,” he says. 

The economics of running a small business dictate, however, that he needs to keep up with his rules – and keep those who are challenged by them away. 

“New people are a problem to me,” he says. “I really don’t want any more customers.”