11 December 2018

The Holy Hobo

Food ✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪ 

Jesmond Three Sixty 
Newcastle upon Tyne 

0191 281 3010 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes 

Anyone who spends a bit of time writing about restaurants will quickly find themselves the target of press releases declaring this or that new opening to be the hottest thing since sliced hype. You soon become inured to the over-familiar and breathless tone of these communiqués, with their exclamation marks and awful words like “tantalising” and “fully-loaded”. 

Off the top of my head, precisely none of the greatest meals I’ve ever eaten came after having reading PR blurb. A number of the most awful ones did though. Funny that. 

Nonetheless, every now and then I stumble across some release that is so vibrantly bonkers I find myself drawn to check out the place it purports to describe, like a sick moth to a roaring flame. Which explains why my friend and I recently found ourselves in what used to be Mr Lynch, but has recently been rebranded as, ahem... The Holy Hobo.

1 December 2018

Bistro Citron Vert

Food ✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪✪ 

1 Wellington St 
High Pittington 
County Durham 
DH6 1AZ 

0191 372 0564 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes 

I’ve been reworking my way through the best episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” as a sort of personal memorial to someone I never met, but who had the most wonderful gift for finding connections in and between food, people and places. 

He also had a great influence on my own cooking: his Les Halles Cookbook, which I bought in 2004, remains one of the most thumbed in my kitchen. It’s wonderfully funny and as outrageous as its author – in between the classic brasserie recipes it’s brimful of anecdotes of behind the scenes antics at the restaurant in Manhattan where he was head chef. His passion drips off the page like the juices of a medium rare côte de boeuf – I like to think he was a hopeless romantic about French cooking. 

It stands to reason, of course. Bourdain’s own childhood food epiphany was the consumption of an oyster while on a family holiday in the Gironde - “It tasted of seawater...of brine and flesh… and somehow...of the future”. 

For many of us, when classic French dishes are prepared and served well they can indeed raise the spirits. They taste of comfort, familiarity and reassurance. Nowadays this world can seem ablaze with division and fury and the future seems anything but certain. To enjoy a simple but delicious plate of food that has been prepared with skill and diligence, in much the same way as it has been since who knows when, is somehow to reject all the nastiness and look to a more stable world where, just maybe, things will turn out all right. Maybe. 

That’s the feeling I had anyway, as Mrs Diner and I set about our starters in Bistro Citron Vert. To be clear, this wasn’t high end French cuisine: nothing was flambéed, the sauces weren’t complex, there was no deft removal of bones at tableside. But sometimes a skilled rendition of the mundane can be more satisfying than stiff formality.

22 November 2018

Carter & Fitch

Food ✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

Stone Cellar Road 
High Usworth
Tyne & Wear 
NE37 1PH 

0191 202 2404 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes  

So here we were on Wearside for the latest installment of the as-yet-unsuccessful “Operation Find Somewhere Nice To Eat in Central Sunderland”, a toilsome undertaking that a lesser reviewer would have jacked in ages ago. I am, however, possessed of both optimism and unwavering obstinacy, and so on I trudge. 

Mrs Diner and I had with us the pal, who had with her a very Junior Diner. Fine, I had thought; if I’m struggling for word count I can bang on about the baby change facilities. People eat out with young kids all the time. The pal does, anyhow. I foresaw no difficulties. More fool me. 

We pitched up at El Nido Mexicana at the advertised opening time of midday looking forward to what I had been told were some thoroughly decent tacos and a good list of mezcals, but the lights were off and nobody was home. I rang to see what the score was. No answer. 

With Junior getting restless in her pram, we hot-footed it over town to Mexico 70, set up by Neil Bassett of the excellent band Hyde and Beast, only to find the doors locked, some twenty minutes after Google suggested they ought to have opened. 

While I began to mutter swear words under my breath a delivery man was trying to get access, at which point a chef poked his head out of the kitchen and let us in, only to advise that they don’t have high chairs. Ikea flogs them for nine quid, guys. We would have spent an awful lot more than that. Just saying. 

Flustered, hungry, and with Junior on a one way journey down meltdown street, I abandoned the idea of doing any kind of review and sought the nearest sustenance. The Engine Room was just over the road. They had a twenty minute wait for tables. This was not good news. Junior was now doing actual yelping, and things had gotten visceral. 

Mrs Diner shot me a look. “We need to get out of Sunderland” she hissed. 

We hightailed it back to the car and headed north, to safety. At which point I remembered that I’d been meaning to try Carter and Fitch, near Washington. 

10 minutes later we were seated, crayons and wine had been distributed appropriately by friendly staff and all calm was restored. The food turned out to be mostly terrible, but did we care? Not much.

4 November 2018

St Vincent

Food ✪✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

29 The Broad Chare 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 3DQ 

Accessibility? Yes Gluten free? Yes 

0191 232 1331 

You might think that after so many combined years in the biz, Terry Laybourne and his team at 21 Hospitality Group would lose their edge; that their extraordinary ability to give the people what they want, just before they know they want it, would become dulled. A visit to St Vincent will soon set you right: they’ve only gone and done it again. It’s a little beaut.

21 October 2018

Roots York

Food ✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪✪ 

68 Marygate 
YO30 7BH 

No phone number 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes 

“It’s not you. You’re great. Honestly. No, no, you don’t need to change anything, I promise. Really, it’s not you: it’s me!” 

I always thought this was the sort of pathetic line that men - well, mostly men - trot out when they want to break up with someone, but don’t have testicular fortitude to tell the dumpee the truth. Far, far better to refer to some ambiguous failing of the self than shoulder the responsibility for someone else’s distress. That's always been my excuse anyhow. 

But once or twice of late, when faced with a particular type of modern British cookery, I’ve wondered whether my slightly muted response might not be the food’s fault, but my own. Is there something I’m just not getting? Why, when I’m going in fully primed to have my socks blown off am I coming out with them still firmly inside my shoes? 

The type of food and restaurant I’m talking about here is one which takes its time and place seriously, which thinks carefully about ingredients and preparations, often to the point of growing, making, or preserving them itself. In Northern England that means acknowledging the shortness of the growing season with creative thrift, perhaps alongside a focus on high quality dairy and meats, and certainly an interest in preserving and fermenting. Lake Road Kitchen in Windermere does this sort of thing. I couldn’t wait to eat there, expecting a minor epiphany, but found it... just nice. And so then to Roots in York, the second restaurant from Tommy Banks, which was, well... just very nice.

25 September 2018

Stack Newcastle

Food ✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 
(Sushi me Rollin’ were lovely) 

Stack Newcastle 
Old Odeon Site 
Pilgrim Street 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 6QE 

0191 216 1415 


Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Some 

Honestly, it’s a wonder that there are any shipping containers left for the ships. When Riley’s Fish Shack and Anna Hedworth’s Cookhouse used a couple apiece to open their businesses it had just a whiff of underground cool and felt a bit edgy. When By The River Brew Co opened up earlier this year it was as if the whole “not quite permanent” concept had been weaponised, to very good effect. 

With the advent of Stack, on the site of the former Odeon Cinema, shipping containers have gone full-blown mainstream. Give it a couple of years and we’ll all be living, working and loving in shipping containers. Watch out, Maersk.

15 September 2018

Pentonbridge Inn

Food ✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪✪ 

CA6 5QB 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes 

01228 586636 

Sometimes the restaurant trade moves so fast that I struggle to keep pace. If you wanted an example of the ephemeral impermanence of existence, you could do at lot worse than to keep tabs, as I try vainly try, on which chefs are cooking where. 

Case in point: Pentonbridge Inn, just outside of Longtown in Cumbria. It was only late last year when, to a fair harrumph of fanfare in the trade press, husband and wife chefs Jake and Cassie White, ex of Marcus Wareing and Hélène Darroze, left the bright lights of London for the rather less likely venue of Penton, just a few hundred yards south of the Scottish Border. There was some excited chat on the part of the owners about the possibility of Michelin stars, of improving local food supply chains and even of Longtown becoming a notable “food town”. 

This last statement drew a sustained eyebrow-raise from me. I’ve driven through Longtown many times. Let's be charitable: Cartmel it ain’t. Still, the food at Pentonbridge sounded like serious fun. Great, I thought. I’ll pop in for lunch sometime. So we did, a couple of weeks ago on a trip back from The Lakes, but neither Jake nor Cassie were anywhere to be seen. For whatever reason they’ve departed the business inside of a year (they left in May ‘for personal reasons’), to be replaced by Gary McDermott who had previously slung his knives at Carlisle’s Rickerby Retreat and most recently as head chef at Grasmere’s Lancrigg Hall. 

I heard the White’s food here had been superb, but now I’ll never know. What I can however tell you is that, happily, Gary’s isn’t half bad either.

31 August 2018

Wolfmann’s Eating House

Food ✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

9A Stanhope Parade 
South Shields 
Tyne & Wear
NE33 4BA 

07714 525784 

The phrase “hidden gem”, is a double-edged sword. One of the joys of being The Secret Diner is to be able tip you the wink about unassuming but excellent places off the beaten track; however, doing so brings more than a frisson of guilt for those who thought they had these secret haunts all to themselves. 

So, if you have a favourite seat at Wolfmann’s Eating House in South Shields - and there are only about eighteen to choose from - then I’m sorry for what follows (you can blame Phil Dixon, who originally emailed me about it). This really is a cracking little place, with charm to burn and a well-cooked menu of unusually fun Asiana that deserves to find a wider audience.

21 August 2018


Food ✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

By the River Brew Co 
Hillgate Quays 
NE8 2BH 

Accessibility? Yes 
Gluten free? Yes  

0191 737 1120 
(online bookings only) 

Sometimes fortune really does favour the bold. When Rob Cameron and Dave Stone of Wylam Brewery/Bridge Tavern/Town Wall fame signed on the proverbial dotted line and agreed, at very short notice, to take on the project of planning a “shipping container village” underneath the Gateshead side of the Tyne Bridge, they couldn’t in their wildest dreams have expected a summer like this one. What a wall to wall scorchio, perfect for street food sampling, or just sitting outside with a lovely view and a nice beer. And pretty handy when you’ve just opened up a massive pub in the middle of it. 

Except that to call ‘By The River Brew Co.’ a pub is a bit like referring to me as fussy; both are true, but also radical understatements.

12 August 2018

The Roxburgh

Food ✪✪✪✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪ 

4 Roxburgh House 
Park Avenue 
Whitley Bay 
Tyne & Wear
NE26 1DQ 

0191 253 1661 

What’s happened to Whitley Bay? It’s fast turning into a food and drink paradise: Hinnies, Nord, Papa Ganoush, Left Luggage Room, Elder and Wolf, Storm Cellar, Omni, the new Spanish City – where have I missed? Every time I visit the town, or a Metro stop either side of it, there seems to be somewhere new and good. 

I’m sure locals would give a shrug of their collective shoulder at this; they know just fine what they’ve got, thanks. But for anyone not from the area, with hazy recollections of Whitley Bay’s grim, stag-frenzied past, this new state of affairs is nothing short of miraculous. 

As far as I know, the upward trend all began with this little place: The Roxburgh. I had a great brunch here when it first opened at the beginning of 2015. My review began with the understatement: “It’s not exactly our region’s culinary capital”. I couldn’t really understand why a chef of Gary Dall’s skills and pedigree had chosen to open his first restaurant here. This chef from Wallsend had worked under Laybourne, and in Sydney, and used to be the private chef of touring rock bands. Why a tiny dining room in Whitley Bay?