By Graham Chalmers
Singer Nicki Allan is on her second number as diners tuck into their starters inside the characterful Harrogate Brasserie.
At the end of her first set, I talk to Jazz Yorkshire’s Vocalist of the Year for 2011.
“It’s a nice place to play,” she tells me as she sits down for a brief chat in her break, a powerful vision in long, dark hair.
Surely it’s hard work entertaining a crowd who are here for the food and the ambience as much as for yourself, I venture.
“It’s not background music” says the singer, who is also principal voice coach at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.
“When I sing at the Brasserie, I shouldn’t dominate the room. It has to be enjoyable for everyone and alarming to no one.”
To walk inside Harrogate Brasserie is to enter a different, more relaxed world than the one outside.
Walls decorated in deep red, eccentric bric a brac casually displayed. The Brasserie has always looked a little like a cross between a Victorian saloon and a homely front parlour.
Full of cosy nooks and crannies, its centre piece is a magnificent black and white tiled floor. It’s like happening upon a giant game of chess.
As Nicki and bassist Paul Chamberlain get ready for the second set of this particular Thursday night, I notice a few non-diners enjoying a casual drink and a chat at the bar.
The Harrogate Brasserie (a four star AA hotel) has long been neither one thing nor the other which is partly why I like it.
In most cases this characteristic would be a weakness not a strength. Not in the case of the Brasserie which has been going its own merry way with quiet success for around 25 years.
It’s gentle brand of jazz wafts out of its doors six nights a week, pulling in passing trade as well as regulars without the need for the hard sell.
Located halfway down the hill on Cheltenham Parade, it’s a live venue and a bar and a restaurant and a hotel – and somehow that works.
It’s doubtful this would be the case without the sense of purpose of owner Richard Finney. It’s thanks to him that the Brasserie feels the way it does. It has standards but no airs and graces. It’s keen that customers enjoy themselves but doesn’t put itself on any sort of false pedestal.
Richard sums up the Brasserie’s approach himself in an unpretentious fashion.
“We serve reasonable food at reasonable prices in a relaxed atmosphere with good music. No more, no less.”
By now the very versatile Nicki, who also fronts her own jazz sextet, has moved on from swing classics by the likes of Cole Porter to more recent soul and pop songs and the occasional track by acoustic singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. She has a powerful voice but her delivery is gentle. I feel free to carry on chatting to friends while tucking into a delicious black pudding starter and sirloin steak main.
Not that I want to talk that loudly. The atmosphere may not be one of hushed reverence but there’s no sense of rude abandon either.
It’s an informal but civilised atmosphere which, of all the many bar-restaurants in Harrogate, belongs only to the Harrogate Brasserie.
Never trendy, never flavour of the moment, the Harrogate Brasserie carries on being itself and attracts people happy to be themselves, too.
Long may it carry on doing so.
l The Harrogate Brasserie Hotel is located at 26-30 Cheltenham Parade, Harrogate.
Live jazz with different resident acts takes place in the restaurant six nights a week: Monday-Tuesdays 5.30pm-9.30pm. Wednesdays-Thursdays 6.45pm-9.45pm. Friday 7.45pm-11pm. Sundays 7pm-10pm.
Telephone 01423 505041 or visit www.harrogatebrasserie.co.uk