September swan song for Bell Pepper Blues

Dunedin restaurateur Michael Coughlin in Bell Pepper Blues. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Dunedin restaurateur Michael Coughlin in Bell Pepper Blues. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Time is running out for gourmets who want to savour a last fine-dining experience at one of Dunedin's culinary institutions.

Bell Pepper Blues is due to close for good in September, after 18 years as one of Dunedin's leading restaurants.

Owner Michael Coughlin confirmed to the Otago Daily Times this week his restaurant would not continue after his lease expired in the Prince of Wales Hotel building, in Princes St.

Mr Coughlin said like many restaurants, Bell Pepper Blues had been hit hard by last year's recession, but it had also suffered from a mistaken public perception that it had already closed.

"It had a massive effect and one that we just will not recover from. Seventeen years of hard work got undone and untangled very, very quickly."

Those factors, and Mr Coughlin's involvement as executive chef at the new St Clair Resort Hotel's Pier 24 restaurant, had led to the decision not to continue with Bell Pepper Blues beyond September.

"People have said, `well you'll be feeling upset about it all' but I actually feel that it's 18 years of a job well done. I'm proud of what we've done. And we want to end it on a positive note."

Mr Coughlin, his wife Mari-Anne and partners set up the restaurant in November 1992.

Mr Coughlin had trained in the army, worked at Dunedin restaurant 95 Filleul, at Olivers, in Clyde, and in his own family restaurant, Stepping Out, in Alexandra.

He had also won several national awards and said the reputation of Bell Pepper Blues was such during its "honeymoon" period that reservations were required even for lunch.

"We used to ask them, `have you got a reservation?' And they would say `what are you talking about? This is lunch. This is Dunedin'. And that went on for years."

Mr Coughlin believed the success of the restaurant had much to do with his "hands-on approach" and dedication to "doing it right".

"Second-best wasn't an option."

The restaurant was open six days a week for lunch and dinner which, in its early years, involved Mr Coughlin in a 70 to 80 hour week, starting at 7am, finishing late at night and with a 15 minute "power nap" between lunch and dinner.

"I put it down to a combination of dedication and stupidity, really."

Mr Coughlin said the restaurant continued to receive positive reviews from national food writers and he still got many bookings from overseas.

Mr Coughlin said the name Bell Pepper Blues came about while he was painting its ceilings before opening.

The name was a fusion of his interest, at the time, in southeast American cooking, using "aromatic and delicately flavoured" chillies, and his interest in blues music, including a particular song at the time, Eric Clapton's Bell Bottom Blues.

But even after 18 years Mr Coughlin says he looks at it and thinks: "what a silly name; what was I thinking?"

"It was really about a whole atmosphere . . . I didn't want something cliched or generic. I wanted, when people walked in there to say, `yeah that makes sense'."

ODT food writer and restaurant reviewer for Cuisine magazine Charmian Smith described Bell Pepper Blues as Dunedin's "highest-profile" fine-dining restaurant.

"Coughlin's ability to combine flavours with balance and harmony and his attention to detail put him among the finest chefs in the country.

"Although it's sad to see it close, I'm glad we'll still be able to enjoy his food at Pier 24."

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