After four months of eating in, Tim Cooper takes the temperature of dining out again in Newcastle – with his hand gel and disinfectant wipes at the ready.
It’s a sunny Saturday in Newcastle (yes, you did read that correctly) and as I step off the train from London, still cursing my fellow travellers who think they’re too special to wear the masks that every single freaking sign and announcement tells us are compulsory, there’s just time for a late lunch by the banks of the invitingly fogless Tyne.
We have a 2 o’clock booking at the highly-rated and highly-priced Träkol restaurant with its open-fire kitchen but, being strangers to the brave new world of going out to eat again, we’ve failed to anticipate the queues for a drinking spot by the river on a summer afternoon following four months of lockdown.
The first queue is at the entrance to the riverside itself: people are standing in line just to get down to the By The River Brew Co. – a container community beneath the Tyne Bridge that includes Träkol, a 15 BBL microbrewery with outdoor pub tables on the riverside, and a bike shop.
Thankfully, our reservation means we can jump to the front of the queue, where we have to scan a QR code by taking a photo on a mobile phone (not easy when your companion’s phone is broken), record your names and phone numbers in case you need to be tracked and traced later, and wait to have your temperature taken by a man in a visor pointing a plastic gun at your head.
Welcome to the brave new world of post-lockdown eating out.
Suitably approved, we descend to the quayside, where a beardy hipster in a face mask makes us squirt sanitiser on our hands and walk in a roundabout route via the toilets to the restaurant – only to find that the highly-regarded and highly-priced Träkol with its open-fire kitchen has a not-really-open kitchen now that our positive vetting has made us six minutes late.
So we seek, and receive, authorisation from the beardy hipster in a mask to sit at a riverside table instead (much nicer, since Träkol has no outdoor seating for diners) and, tempted by the tantalising smells of burning flesh from a caravan called Fat Hippo parked next to us, order food from there instead. Just not actually *from* there.
Although we can see and, hypothetically (were it safe and legal to do so), touch the two men grilling burgers inside the hatch of Fat Hippo’s mobile burger emporium (there are other branches in the city), we have to go back to our table and scan another QR code to order online. Thankfully, by this time we’ve managed to order ourselves an IPA (for him) and lager (for her), both brewed onsite at the Brewery & Tap – and both exactly what we required.
Even better are the burgers when they arrive – an event that is notified by email before I make the five-yard dash to the hatch to pick them up, pausing only to chat to a young Geordie girl who raves about the Fat Hippo’s proper restaurant in the city centre. I’ve ordered a PB & DoubleJ for me (that’s a tongue-tingling combo of peanut butter, bacon jam and smoked chilli jello on the burger) and a veggie burger for my non-meat-eating companion, both with excellent skinny fries. And I have to say, despite initial reservations about a burger with peanut butter, it’s similar to satay sauce – sweet, with a satisfying crunch and a hint of heat – and as addictive as crack. I immediately want another one.
But we don’t because (a) I’m not a pig, and (b) even if I am, I know that we have a dinner reservation at Blackfriars, which is routinely rated as Newcastle’s top restaurant and claims to be Britain’s oldest, at least in the sense that people have been dining on the same site since 1239. Back then this was the refectory for the friars; long since replaced in the kitchen by fryers.
With its old stone walls and old wooden beams, it’s a bit terrifying to go indoors to eat for the first time since March. I’ve been trying to remember where I last ate out (by which I mean ate in) and I can’t. We enter cautiously, and a woman emerges from a plexiglass booth – a bit like a see-through confessional – brandishing another of the plastic thermometer guns to take our temperatures. Apparently, we are both below ‘normal’, which is fine, and if we had a high fever the gun would start bleeping and flashing – and probably send the entire staff and clientele fleeing for safety.
We’re shown to a table, which I wipe with the Dettol wipes that I have paranoidly brought with me for just that purpose, wipe the cutlery and dry it with a napkin, wondering whether that defeats the point, and mentally calculate which seats are farthest away from the other diners. There’s a quiet couple on one side and a noisy trio opposite me, who seem intent on making up for lost eating-out time by sampling the entire drinks list. I watch in wonder as they perform the tricky task of eating their meals with both elbows on the table at the same time, which makes them look like crabs.
Now I know we’re all trying to help the hospitality industry, and we’re all making allowances for the fact they’ve been losing money hand over fist and may have to raise prices a little to stay in business but Blackfriars might be taking this too far. They appear not to have taken into account that their diners, too, maybe feeling the pinch after months of unemployment. At any rate, the scallop starters are lovely, with a gooseberry gel and a little circle of jellified verjus to give it a citrus tang, and mine is even nicer because I get both portions of pancetta to go with it.
The cod that follows was the last portion left, according to the waitress when we arrived, and let’s just say it looks like it; a meagre, thinly tapering end-of-fillet that compares poorly with the plump tranches being served to the elbowers opposite. Never mind; the rib-eye steak (served ribless) is good, even if £35 is steep for a modestly sized piece of meat with a Bearnaise sauce and some root vegetables. And the £18 carafe of Spanish red from Navarro (2016 Chivite Baluarte Roble Tempranillo) washes it down nicely.
The waiters are kind, almost disguising their own anxiety at the strange rituals we now have to perform – my companion got lost en route to the loos on a different floor – and the bill (£103.50 without pud) was a bit much for the experience. But good luck to them – it can’t be easy now.
Next morning it’s a trip to an old favourite for breakfast. Flat Caps Coffee is Newcastle’s first and, in my limited experience, best specialty coffee place, and does – or did the last time – an excellent dish of Turkish eggs for breakfast. The menu is now more limited and there is only one other customer, pecking away at a laptop, in what is a vast empty space – not so great for them, but fine for those of us trying to avoid close contact with anyone else during a pandemic.
We have some of their great coffee and share a Mexican(ish) breakfast dish of poached eggs on spicy avocado on sourdough toast, and gaze longingly at the brownies behind the counter without going down the extra-calorie route. Total bill: £21.40.
For lunch, we walk off enough calories to have accommodated a brownie each by getting lost and confusing two different parks, but enjoying close-up views of an empty St James’s Park (which isn’t a park), and spotting a lovely-looking Korean and Japanese street food restaurant called Soho which we won’t have time to try – but where I would certainly go if I went back to watch my team play Newcastle in some fantasy future where fans are allowed back into football stadiums.
So after an unplanned and unwarranted stroll through Leazes Park, and a wander through various parts of the Royal Victoria Infirmary trying to find Exhibition Park, we found ourselves, finally, beside a lake at the Wylam Brewery Tap & Kitchen, housed in the domed and collonaded Palace of Arts, famed for its Sunday lunches.
Here we had our temperatures taken again and I discovered that if you’ve been walking for 45 minutes on a hot sunny day, the thermometer-gun can’t register a temperature off a sweaty brow, leaving the hostess perplexed… until I wiped my brow with my sleeve. A quick squirt of hand-gel later and we were seated opposite the vats of the microbrewery at a table looking out over the lake and everything was fine again.
Especially when the beers arrived, swiftly followed by the starters – a tomato and grilled goat’s cheese salad and a hot-smoked salmon and beetroot salad – as a warm-up for the arrival of the Sunday roasts, both accompanied by spuds, more root veg and Yorkshire puddings the size, as my companion put it, of a baby’s head. The topside of Galloway beef was ordered rare and served perfectly pink and glistening, while the lentil and pistachio terrine’s natural dryness was countered by a thick veggie gravy. The bill – £44.10 for starters, mains and beers – is excellent value.
The walk back, via George Kenyon’s 1960s-built Newcastle Civic Centre with its sea-horse tower and the WWI Renwick war memorial (aka The Response), earned us enough calorie credit to consider dinner that evening. A planned visit to a tapas restaurant was aborted due to the lack of PPE on display there – not to mention a coughing chef in the open kitchen – forcing a change of plan.
At which point we remembered we had walked past Dabbawal the previous day and it had caught our eye, so we walked back towards the High Bridge branch and, somewhat mortifyingly, were directed to its door by the homeless guy who had just asked us for money, and whom we had had to disappoint because we had no cash on us.
Housed in a side street, it encouragingly greeted its few visitors with a self-serve hand sanitiser, and waiters in visors who were at pains to find us the nicest, and most secluded table in the almost deserted dining room. Dabbawal seems to sell itself as serving Indian street food, but it has more in common with a regular British ‘Indian’ restaurant than, for example, Nisha Katona’s fast-growing Mowgli chain (sadly yet to reach Newcastle or London) where the already legendary chip butty is a carb lover’s dream.
We chose a crunchy bhelpuri, that most ubiquitous of street snacks – easily enough to serve two – followed by Hari Ali King Prawns, a pair of giant crustaceans almost the size of lobster tails, butterflied and served with a rich coconut and lentil sauce; and a Paneer Kofta, pyramid-shaped patties with pistachio and green chili smothered in a gently spicy tomato sauce. Along with naan and a portion of pilau rice, plus a nicely chilled bottle of crisp white Picpoul, it was a bargain at £54.55.
Finally, before the train back to London, a mention for perhaps the tastiest sausage roll I have ever eaten – moist and succulent, the sweetness of onion cutting through the porkiness of the sausagemeat – along with an excellent coffee from the Pink Lane Bakery, where you can watch the pastries being assembled behind the coffee machine. Then a quick drive to Whitley Bay to walk along the beach and gaze longingly at the Tynemouth shoreline and dream of returning to Riley’s Fish Shack, where I ate one of the greatest meals of my life – a mackerel wrap and some empanadas at a ramshackle wooden counter overlooking the North Sea – only a year ago. And cursing the fact that it doesn’t reopen for another week or two.
Wharf-dining and plated fish images (C) Tim Cooper
Feature image (C) Shutterstock
Tell me more about COVID-friendly eating out in Newcastle
By The River Brew Co., Highgate Quays, Gateshead NE8 2FD
Blackfriars Restaurant, Friars Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4XN
Flat Caps Coffee, 9-11 Carliol Square, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6UF
Wylam Brewery, Palace of Arts, Exhibition Park, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE2 4PZ
Dabbawal High Bridge, 69-75 High Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6BX
Pink Lane Bakery, 40 Pink Lane, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 5DY