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The evolution of roadside restaurants

13 03 23 Brightside hero

There has always been independent businesses setting up by the roadside to take advantage of the passing trade, whether it’s passing on foot, horseback, bike, or nowadays the motorcar.

Fruit and veg stalls, florists, burger trucks you name it someone has tried it at some point in history. But the one sector that’s gone through an evolution, or you could say roundabout full circle, is the roadside restaurant experience. 

Table service

As the UK’s motorway network began in the late 1950s so too came the advent of motorway service stations, albeit a last minute addition to the scheme when it dawned on planners that drivers would need to stop, refuel and rest. The first services opened at Watford Gap on the M1 in November 1959. Originally these were owned by the Government as part of the motorway infrastructure and provided fine-dining and table-service experiences for the few who could afford a car in order to go on longer journeys. 

However, on the UK’s A-roads, private companies were able to set up their own food and beverage outlets. The first Little Chef restaurant opened in 1958 originally in a prefabricated building with space for just 20 customers and a small amount of car parking. The brand grew in the 1970s, alongside other competitors such as Road Chef, Welcome Break, and Happy Eater, which was later acquired by Little Chef. The concept behind these brands were to provide good quality, hearty food for motorists who are on a road trip with friends and family, as well as provide sustenance for long-haul drivers. 

Fast food operators

It was not until the 1980s that drive thrus began to increase in popularity. Found on more local roads on the outskirts of urban areas and close to industrial parks consisting almost exclusively of fast-food chain operators.

Meanwhile, on the motorways fine dining was soon replaced by fast food catering to the coach-loads of patrons, quite often football fans. In the 1990s the Government loosened their grip on the sector allowing high street food and beverage chains to move in, and the modern iteration of service stations  that revolve around self-service kiosks and countertop services we are now familiar with became the norm. 

Rapid over-expansion through the late 20th century and early 21st sent some of the big names of the sector into administration or mergers with other brands and hospitality businesses to complement each other’s service offerings. 

Nostalgic take on roadside dining 

But now there’s a new brand looking to break into the market: Brightside, developed by hospitality firm Loungers who are also behind the brands Cosy Club and Lounge. 

The firm is looking to bring back the classic table-service roadside dining experience focusing on the UK’s A-road network, and the first is opening on the A38 south of Exeter. The concept is to provide traditional diner food albeit using good quality ingredients, alongside petrol and electric vehicle charging stations. The first restaurant’s design has been inspired by transport motifs including booth materials made from bus and tube train fabrics, as well as avocado-coloured bathroom suites.  

The Automotive & Roadside team has been working with Brightside to find suitable locations across England and Wales securing their first three sites on the A303 at Honiton, the A38 west of Exeter, and  A38 west of Plymouth. Two other sites have also been secured subject to planning in Norfolk and Rutland. Unlike the original days of roadside dining, there’s no one target customer for the brand, instead, their focused on providing a nostalgic quintessentially English take on roadside dining, and encourage customers to slow down and enjoy the experience of the road trip and associated pit stops as a real break from the road with a view of the countryside, alongside a good slice of cottage pie, served to your table, with a smile. 

About the author

Anthony Keohane is a director in our Automotive & Roadside team with more than 20 years' experience in this specialist sector advising dealerships and manufacturers, as well as petrol forecourt operators. 

To contact Anthony email,

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Anthony Keohane


Automotive and Roadside

London - West End

Anthony Keohane has 20 years experience in this specialist sector. He is client director for Toyota (GB) Plc as well as acting for other manufacturers and dealer groups. Anthony has extensive experience in the petrol market and is retained by Sainsbury's supermarkets on their expansion programme. He leads the London team and  advises many of the high street banks and private equity houses and  in respect of their structured debt and mortgage finance.

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