Chris and Liz Smith opened the underground bar in Cheriton Place on December 5, 1998.
The building was formerly the late night drinking Sub Club venue, with a huge sound system, host of DJs and remembered as somewhat “frantic”.
Chris said: “It was a late night drinking venue with amazing DJs, far too much sound system and a subject of debauchery so it really couldn’t live past it’s first year of licensing!
“But it was an amazing place of myth and legend!”
When Chris and Liz took over the building looked unrecognisable. The original bar needed some work. They turned it into a tequlia bar – now now as the back bar which serves more than just tequila!
The front bar was plain, there was nothing on the walls and the orange exterior, which has become synonymous with the pub, was no where to be seen.
Chris has lived in Folkestone all his life and previously worked in bars around the town, including as manager at Harvey’s Wine Bar and the Wards Hotel.
He has been married to Liz for 28 years and they have two children, Sam and Rosie.
Their business began just a few years after their family had, and it seems their pub became somewhat a third child.
A family business
After viewing the 100-year-old building with property advisor Andrew Beggs in May 1998, Chris, Liz and their two children – then aged just one and seven – took the project on.
They were joined by manager Paul Cosgrave, who sadly passed away last year, but described by the pair as a great friend who was “full of beans.”
Chris said: “He was a joy and that was when the business started. Chambers has been mine and Liz’s baby from day one.
“It was just derelict, virtually. The kitchen was infested, the cellar didn’t even exist, all the skylights leaked horrifically and it was just terrible.”
The Chambers was born
Their workforce included a local homeless man Kevin Whiting who Chris said became a close family friend after offering to help.
He added: “It was really good times actually, he helped me do a lot of converting on it and get it together.
“We had a good amount of help from some close friends as well who gave their Sundays to help me do some plumbing and things.”
They opened just before Christmas, which Chris described as the “craziest” time.
He said: “It just went off like a bomb, I think it was the right thing for Folkestone at the time.”
A great place to eat
In June 1999 they stripped and refurbished the kitchen, the back bar (which just served a huge range of tequila) and started serving food.
Chris said: “We jumped into this a bit naively to be honest. I always knew the bar would work. Working in town I knew a lot of the faces and knew what would and wouldn’t work.
“But the food went off like a volcano. Our record was 200 services in an hour, it was so so busy.”
Liz explained: “There was nothing locally doing Mexican food and we both love Mexican.”
Chris added: “So when we started doing our own it was a joy.”
Their first chef was Gary Doran who came over from Wards Hotel with Chris. He worked at Chambers for over 10 years.
Chris added: “Traditionally a lot of our staff do stay here a long time.”
Licensee Darryl Pond worked there for 14 years, while DJ and bar worker Thom Norton worked there for 11 years, briefly left but has recently returned.
Liz said: “We just try to be nice. We expect our staff to be nice, we’re nice and we want our customers to be nice.”
Chris added: “We made a conscious decision to stay recognisable all the time we were here.
“We like the fact that people say it feels like a comfortable pair of slippers. There’s a continuity here, they see the same faces, they know where everything is and it’s a comfort.”
You’ll probably recognise Chris who often works front of house, whereas Liz has often been more behind the scenes.
Initially they just had the bar and the now-Cafe upstairs was a former travel agent and later Thomas Cook.
But when it became available in 2001 they jumped at the chance to take it over.
Chris said: “We still use the same coffee now that we used then. At the time I think there were three coffee houses in Folkestone.
“Things have changed a lot since then.”
So what has changed?
Well, the pool table was evicted, they installed almost everything and the walls had a lick of paint four months ago.
When the smoking ban came in July 2007 Chambers moved more into food, refining their menu to be the relaxed, light-hearted style of eating they both enjoy.
There’s no doubt Folkestone has changed dramatically. When Chambers opened there was a circuit everyone used to take through the night, which usually ended up at The Priz.
And after a few years of exponential growth and change in Folkestone, it’s clear to see how the success of Chambers came first.
Chris said: “We worked so hard to hold a consistency of service – to do as well as we can with everything we do.”
How do you describe Chambers?
In their own words “everyone is welcome.” And it’s true.
Whether you’re with a big group of people, on a quiet date, looking for incredible live music, want to eat fajitas or fancy some dancing – Chambers truly offers everything. And it’s always been like that.
Liz said: “We’ve had wakes, christenings, baptisms, weddings, meetings, exhibitions, bands from all over the world.”
We could write a book on the brilliant bands that have played at Chambers, including Kings of Leon, Motorhead and a raft of talent from all over the world.
Canterbury-based DJs Mums Old Vinyl put the pub on the map for having the best music around and Sexy Chocolate is always the place to be.
Outside the underground bar, Liz and Chris have been involved with endless community projects and are themselves, stalwarts of the community.
Before Folkestone became an “art town” Chambers were exhibiting art every week – the coffee shop was a staple for it.
It was the first place to find original, local art and there’s always fabulous art on the walls.
Their drink choices are always interesting – everyone knows you go to Chambers for Biddies.
But there’s no rivalry between venues – far from it.
Chris said: “It’s great to see Folkestone on the up and the more good bars you have, the better it is for the town.”
‘We believe in Chambers’
So with working hour weeks often topping 100 hours, a challenging start with two young children and weathering the storm of Folkestone – was it all worth it?
Chris said: “The highlight for me is when something is hard work to put together, takes a lot of effort but then it goes brilliantly, everyone gets it, it’s worked and you think ‘that’s exactly why we do it’.
For Liz, her highlight is their amazing customers and staff. She said: “They bring their family in or they’ll come here after they’ve had a s*** time.
“Our family had to come on the ride with us. At times it’s been bumpy, at times its been joyous.
“But basically we feel honoured when we are a special place for people.
Chris added: “There are people who drink in here who weren’t even born when we took over, but their parents came in and they love it too.
“We believe in Chambers so much and it really matters to us.”