|Secret Diner 2014 Awards - plaques donated by CCS|
What a difference a year makes.
At last the North East is catching up with the rest of Britain when it comes to dining out. The old jibe that our region is a culinary desert (made by Southerners with more than a little justification) is finally dead and buried, or should be.
The proof: of the 20 or so new openings since our last awards, several have achieved a 4 star rating, equivalent to a couple of AA rosettes. That’s a huge improvement on last year’s scores.
The national food guides and critics haven’t caught up yet. Why would they? They’ve always assumed that we live in the culinary dark ages, so many of our new venues have passed them by. But those of us who eat out a lot have noticed a real improvement in standards, particularly on Tyneside.
Sure, the region still has only one Michelin star (The Raby Hunt, where James Close’s extraordinary talent continues to shine), but what’s most exciting is the general improvement in the kitchens of our pubs, bars and cafés. I now have over 80 recommended establishments on this website – maybe your New Year’s resolution should be to try them all in 2015?
Many establishments have made waves this year, so it’s impossible to include them all.
On North Shields’ fish quay John Calton’s The Staith House has added impact to the already buzzing culinary scene. In Morpeth, where it’s been hard to find any cooking of note apart from Italian and Thai, residents have welcomed The Northumberland Arms at Felton, which is now packed out most evenings and Sunday lunchtimes, and even North Northumberland has a destination restaurant with Holystone Lodge. Hexham has a superb Indian in Zyka, and there’s a great new pizzeria called The Wood Oven in Wylam.
In Newcastle’s city centre, the dead hand of pre-made, bulk-bought catering that used to arrive in early morning vans is finally being replaced by carefully sourced local ingredients and a passion for excellence in the kitchens.
We’ve seen this in places like Lane7, which might have become just another café within a bowling alley, but is actually a real find for anyone who likes real American-style burgers and chilli dogs. They’re not alone: DatBar has great burgers and pizzas, and even the enormous Harry’s Bar has a surprisingly ambitious menu.
Also in Teesside, Marcus Bennett, winner of this year’s Gastropub Award, has added another good Yarm eaterie with Cena, and even Middlesbrough has gained some good cooking with its Brasserie Hudson Quay.
In Jesmond, Dave Coulson’s Peace & Loaf has managed to combine really good cooking with a relaxed, local vibe and well deserves its Journal Readers’ Award for Best Restaurant. It was in the running for our top gong too, but the top prize this year went to Kenny Atkinson’s House of Tides.
Congratulations to Kenny on winning this year's North East Restaurant of the Year award, which is chosen from all the winners of the ten awards categories. It's presented to the restaurant that has made the most significant contribution to the North East's restaurant scene in 2014, an incredibly difficult choice, given The Raby Hunt's consistently brilliant cooking and success in getting national recognition, and the innovation and popular appeal of some of the other winners that offer great food in genres other than fine dining.
Next year I suspect there’ll be even more competition: Rockliffe Hall has just announced that they’ve appointed Michelin-starred chef Richard Allen to run their Orangery restaurant.
Most of the time I’ve had to trust my own tastebuds and judgment in making these selections, but I’m grateful for the help of several local bloggers and foodies whose opinions I respect.
And I’ve also taken serious note of the comments from my 2,300 Twitter followers and all the emails I’ve received from countless others. They, after all, represent the community that really matters: the customers.
The fact that this year only a couple of restaurants have closed, and so many good ones have opened is a sign of a vibrant regional restaurant industry. Long may it continue. Have a great Christmas and great dining in 2015.