The supposedly humble medieval Black Friars were censured for their extravagance in constructing a base in Newcastle twice as big as it should have been.
But the reprimand for the size of the friary has turned out to be a reward for a restaurateur couple as they build on what’s believed to be the UK’s oldest purpose-built dining room.
Since leasing the 780-year-old refectory from the city council in 2001 to create Blackfriars restaurant, Andy and Sam Hook have re-developed other parts of the U-shaped building into a banquet hall where the frairs enterained royalty, a cookery school, bar, tasting room and cloister garden.
But the Hooks are not merely occupants of this historic space but have dedicated themselves to research its culinary history along with experts from Durham University from ingredients to etiquette.
It turns out feasting was a much more civilised affair than chucking chicken bones over your shoulder.
During an entertaining pre-dinner cocktail-making workshop in the upstairs cookery school, we were introduced to medieval tipples like mead - combined with rum, lime, maple syrup and ginger ale as a “Mead-jito”.
Head of wine James Scrimgeour also related the dark tale another cocktail creation he taught us to mix, Passion in the Tunnel - vodka, Amaretto and apple, lemon and passion fruit juice - of a friar and nun who were entombed in a tunnel between the friary and a nearby nunnery which they had used for romantic liaisons.
An unexpected extra dimension to the cocktail-making were some amazing canapes rustled up in the restaurant kitchen below, setting the scene for our dinner, including pork and cheese quail’s Scotch eggs and onion bhajis with pickled white radish.
Taste of England winner
Careful not to spill our tipples as we went downstairs to our table, we found ourselves in the attractive low-ceiling, wood-panelled room created from where the friars had dined all those centuries ago.
The food at the current Taste of England north east winning restaurant was everything those canapes had signalled - delicious, multi-layered and complex flavours across a range of dishes from a divine slow-cooked duck egg, truffle and potato croquette starter (£8) to the seriously tasty ash-rolled hoggett loin and belly - between lamb and mutton - with red onion jam, toasted spelt and artichoke (£28).
I rounded off the meal with a beautifully delicately-flavoured pear sorbet.
Our rooms at the centrally-located Motel One were just a short stroll away via the nightlife mecca of Bigg Market and a branch of Greggs which stays open until an impressive 4am at weekends.
Log fire on the TV
The stylish German hotel chain is a misnomer, having no car park, instead welcoming guests through an internal brick archway into an engineering-themed bar, eating and lounging area with large pictures of the town’s totemic bridges and standard lamps with giant Meccano-like columns.
We were lucky enough have a view from our sixth (top) floor window of the Tyne Bridge, built in 1928, four years before and by the same designers as her big sister in Sydney.
I find staying warm in hotel rooms is never a problem, but the log fire on the TV as you come in adds to the cosiness.
If you find yourself sheltering from the elements in Newcastle, the Life Centre beside Central Station is a useful haven, humming with activity on the Sunday morning we visited with planetarium and science theatre shows, white-coated experiment lab and separate upper floor “young explorer zone” reserved for the under-sevens to roam safely.
Back on the streets, taking a tour of the oldest parts of the city centre with Newcastle Castle learning officer David Silk, it was soon apparent the Scots have always been regular visitors - if they weren’t besieging the city, they were being called on to provide more efficient witchfinders than the local talent.
It had never occurred to me that Newcastle might have a castle, perhaps because it sits just feet from the railway so passed unnoticed as we arrived on from Edinburgh on one of LNER’s regular services.
In fact, it’s lucky the castle is still there since Silk said the town council planned to demolish it to make way for the line, condemning it as a “barbarous relic of antiquary”.
The steep flights of steps into the castle keep - Silk said its Norman builders were paranoid of being attacked - and many more on the spiral staircase to the roof are worth it for the dramatic roof-top view of the urban topography including the seven bridges of the Tyne gorge, which link Newcastle with Gateshead.
We heard more about them in a separate tour of the rejuvented quayside from John Nelson of Newcastle City Guides, including the 1849 double-decker High Level Bridge, the world’s first to carry both road and rail, and the extraordinary Gatehead Millennium Bridge.
Reminiscent of Glasgow’s Clyde Arc “squinty bridge”, it symbolises the rebirth of the rundown dockside with another world first - despite being low slung compared to its neighbours, the pedestrian crossing tilts up to accommodate shipping.
But the new bars, restaurants and housing that have replaced the Port of Tyne - relocated eight miles downstream - are just the latest redevelopment of the river bank.
Much of it was rebuilt after the “Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead” in 1854, triggered by a factory explosion.
The work was spearheaded by architects John Dobson and William Parnell, with the former - responsible for other Newcastle landmarks like Central Station, dedicating it to his son Alexander who died fighting the blaze.
In one of these streets, in the shadow of the Tyne bridge, the Hooks opened their third restaurant in 2016 - the other is in Whitley Bay - which also commemorates the architects by being called Dobson & Parnell.
‘Wonderfully puffed-up Yorkshire puds’
Build 600 years after Blackfrairs, it has a very different vibe with large windows, high ceilings and white-tiled walls. Victorian touches include padded round-backed chairs, a brass handrail down to the loos, elegantly signposted simply with a manicule (pointing hand).
Looking at our fellow diners, this is clearly a place for family get-togethers over Sunday lunch, with the menu (£21 for three courses, £17 for two) offering beef, chicken or belly pork roasts.
These are accompanied by wonderfully puffed-up Yorkshire puds, creamy cauliflower cheese and roast potatoes and parsnips.
I book-ended that with an earthy celeriac soup, overlaid with a punchy walnut and kale pesto, followed by more sorbet - this time a delightful trio of Prosecco, apricot and rhubarb.
Our teenage son, not known to be an apricot fan, surprised us by opting for three scoops of that flavour, and loved it.2020: PLEASE CHECK OPENING DURING THE COVID-19 CRISIS
Blackfriars Restaurant & Banquet Hall, Friars Street, Newcastle, 0191 261 5945, blackfriarsrestaurant.co.uk. Dobson & Parnell, 21 Queen Street, Newcastle, 0191 221 0904, dobsonandparnell.co.uk. Motel One Newcastle, 15-25 High Bridge, 0191 211 1090, motel-one.com/en/hotels/newcastle/. Newcastle Castle, 0191 230 6300, newcastlecastle.co.uk. Newcastle City Guides run tours April-October, newcastlegateshead.com/city-guides. Life Science Centre, Times Square, 0191 243 8210, life.org.uk.LNER operates trains to Newcastle every half hour from Edinburgh, which take about 90 minutes, and three times a day from Aberdeen and daily from Glasgow and Inverness, 03457 225 333, lner.co.uk. ScotRail also runs direct trains from Glasgow via Carlisle, scotrail.co.uk.
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