Café des Amis is the creation of Bill & Emmanuelle Betham. They came up with idea whilst travelling in Mexico in 1987. Inspired by the unique and vibrant cuisine and the Mexicans love of fiesta, the concept was born. Bill was already a chef and had previously worked in Paris, Sydney and Durban on his travels. Emmanuelle who is French also had some restaurant experience but particularly had the organisational skills and drive needed to start a restaurant. They found premises a year later in a rather run down building that was trading as the Westgate Tea Room, although for many years it had been home to the antique shop known as Ben Lee.
After a basic refit helped by family and friends, Café des Amis opened on the 9th April 1988. The first week went well enough, with a gentle stream of curious customers coming to find out what this new place was about serving Mexican food in a restaurant with a French name. Incidentally, it was Emmanuelle who came up with the name; she wanted to add an element of French café style to the restaurant and to this day, the menu still draws influence from French cuisine and café culture.
The second weekend, things went crazy. The restaurant filled up quickly and the kitchen went into meltdown. Customers walked out having waited for ever for food to arrive. At this stage, Bill and Emmanuelle (who was 7 months pregnant) were doing everything themselves and they realised that they were going to need some help pronto. It was also apparent that it was not going to work for long cooking on a domestic cooker without extraction. So after an expensive kitchen refit and taking on some staff, Café des Amis started to find its feet. However, a couple of months after opening, the restaurant closed for a week for the birth of the owner’s first baby. Not exactly the best timing combining a new business and a new baby!
In 1988, there were very few Mexican restaurants in the UK and those that there were tended to serve frozen Tex-Mex style food. Knowing that there was much more to Mexican food than chilli con carne and chimichangas, Bill decided from the beginning that all the food at Café des Amis would be home made. So he tracked down the real Mexican ingredients and researched authentic recipes and created the first short menu, which Emmanuelle designed and hand wrote. She also took charge of the staffing and created a team work ethos and training that made work fun and friendly and effective. Many great members of staff have contributed to this magic work atmosphere, which is still apparent today and is one of the unique qualities that make Café des Amis so loved by customers and staff alike.
In 1995, Café des Amis expanded by taking over the Momtaz Indian restaurant next door, which almost doubled the capacity. Over the years, Café des Amis has become the favourite of students, residents, tourists and more than a few celebrities, including Prince Edward – all attracted by the authentic food and warm friendly atmosphere.
Bill and Emmanuelle Betham still own Café des Amis and now, 27 years and more than a million meals later, they continue to provide Canterbury with the finest Mexican cuisine. However, they are both passionate about travel and they have continued to explore the world. In 1999, they decided to open a restaurant in Hawaii; it is a very popular place in the town of Paia, serving crêpes and Indian curries, so just to keep things simple they called it Café des Amis. More recently, in 2010 they opened Café du Soleil in Canterbury, which is rapidly gaining a reputation for great French and Italian food.