18 January 2014

Café Royal

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

8 Nelson Street 
Newcastle upon Tyne 
NE1 5AW 

0191 231 3000 

Mon-Sat 8am – 5.30pm 
Sun 10am – 4pm 

Accessibility: Yes 

London's original Café Royal

Café Royal: the very name conjures images of Victorian decadence. 

The lavish venue that gave London society its first taste of French haute cuisine, this was the haunt of writers and roués. Intrigues and scandals were concealed behind its rich red drapes. Does its Newcastle namesake bear any resemblance? Frankly, no.

To be honest, I’ve always thought of this place as a glorified teashop, an upmarket deli counter selling bread and expensive condiments. I’ve never considered it for lunch. Until now. 

They don’t sell their bread here anymore, though the basement bakery supplies other properties of its owners Sir John Fitzgerald, the family run pub business. 

Its website’s home page is all about the baking: “Café Royal, home to Café Royal Bakery, exceptional quality cakes, scones, bread etc etc.” it raves. The Secret Diner doesn’t review cake shops. But I do love a good lunch. 

It’s a glass-fronted venue with wooden floors and tables, open from breakfast to sunset. Downstairs is a bustling café, upstairs a mezzanine that resembles a department store brasserie. 

Now before you judge this place solely on my 3 star verdict, I want to make it clear that Café Royal was a revelation. It outguns most cafés in Newcastle, and many restaurants as well. 3 stars is no ignominy, earning it a Recommended sticker for its vast picture window. 

What it lacked on my visit could be easily remedied. I hope they do, for I’d very much like to return with a fourth star in my pocket. 

It has a good selection of house wines by the glass, and a varied menu, from ham hock terrine to rib-eye steaks and fishcakes, with several specials. Best of all, it has superb service. 

We were looked after by an attentive waitress called Rebecca, who brought me pearl barley risotto with wild mushrooms, garnished with tiny shoots from Ken Holland and a soft poached egg laced with truffle oil. The barley was delicious, though the mushrooms were chewy. 


My friend had outstanding warm black pudding salad, with perfectly crispy pancetta and his own poached egg. So far so very good. Then came the mains.

Moroccan lamb

Whilst my friend had slow cooked Moroccan lamb shoulder (slightly underspiced, but very tender), shredded onto small flatbreads, with a pleasant pomegranate, carrot and orange salad and a coriander sauce, I ordered their burger. 

This was dangerous. Regular readers know of my vain quest to find a decent burger in this region. Sadly, the Café Royal let me down. 

It wasn’t that I ordered it medium rare and it arrived without a trace of pink. That was a mistake that any chef could make. I sent it back of course. My burgers must always be pink. 

The health and safety ogres who insisted on burgers being cooked through were recently defeated in a landmark court case, which means that restaurants can, and should, be serving them rare again (see News for more details of this judgment in favour of sanity and consumer choice). 

While I waited for a new one to be cooked, a very repentant Rebecca rushed me warm melting focaccia with marinated olives, a thousand apologies from the kitchen, and a deduction of the whole burger from the bill. It was a demonstration of perfect customer service. 

The replacement burger arrived, perfectly cooked, but impaled with a pointless cherry tomato and a thick slice of gherkin. It contained too much tomato, floppy little gem leaves, no mayonnaise and, almost a capital offence, raw onion. Before an onion greets a burger it should be properly caramelised. It did have a very good beetroom and red cabbage coleslaw on the side.

The star of any burger ought to be the meat, but this patty was too thin to compete with its bunmates. It was plastered with Keen’s cheddar, a wonderful Somerset cheese, but incredibly sharp. Ladled on, its saltiness completely destroyed the burger’s equilibrium. With added smoked pepper relish, all taste of beef was lost - it could have been raw or burnt for all I knew. 

We then stupidly ordered desserts, a mistake for two reasons. 

First, it cost me a £25 parking fine – Newcastle Council, which cares not a jot for its restaurants, still has meters with a one-hour capacity, rendering puddings redundant in every city centre eaterie. 

Second, what arrived was the product of a cake shop, not a kitchen. Cloying slabs of gelatinous cheesecake, and a heavy gateau: it was like being back in the 60s. Cakes are for teatime. 

Burger and desserts aside, this place is definitely worth trying, and a two course lunch is good value at around £16 a head – if you remember to feed the meter.

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