But the rest? Well, they’ve got an interesting menu served up by friendly staff in a beautifully fitted out venue smack-bang in the middle of a classical street best-described as a ‘Georgian wet-dream’, and they’ve got the drop on their local competition by a couple of years. Heck, they’ve even got a grand piano.
So why does it feel like kids playing dress-up?
Walking in to try their Sunday menu, the place looks and feels great. Rich, dark woods complemented by plush leather seating, tasteful lighting and tables across a number of different levels and dining areas, a huge central bar, and, of course, their famous piano. It feels like exactly what you would expect walking into an established restaurant on Grey Street. Tasteful and just enough toes into the high-end waters to make you subconsciously take the edge off your Geordie accent and wonder whether you remembered to polish your shoes.
Met by a very friendly chap, we’re whisked straight in and ushered to our table, and here’s where it starts. Taking my coat off and already thinking about what I’m having for dessert, the waiter starts to sit me down and then offers me another table nearby. Or another one near that. Or one over the other side of the restaurant or over there on the next level up if I wanted it. Or one out the back in the meat locker too presumably. With the waiter seemingly needlessly flustered and me suddenly disoriented by turning up for a restaurant booking and not just being sat down somewhere, I pick a table a little way away from a party of 7 ladies having, well, a party and being surprisingly loud for a fairly subdued restaurant on a Sunday afternoon.
Finally settled, they present their Sunday menu featuring a good range of starters, roasts and puddings all for under £25. You can kick off with chicken liver and brandy parfait, baked flat mushrooms, soup of the day, classic Caesar salad or king prawn cocktail (still riding out that ironic seventies starter trend but this time with wholemeal bread), then get stuck in with a main roast beef, corn-fed chicken, breast of duck, shoulder of lamb sweet-cured gammon or apricot and Stilton nut roast. Mains out of the way, you can finish off with chocolate marquise, sticky toffee pudding, brioche and butter pudding (that seventies thing again), fresh fruit salad, peach and cherry crumble or dairy ice cream.
Not bad then. We go for the roast beef, apricot and Stilton nut roast and I throw in the baked flat mushrooms to start. The mushroom starter had a little vegetarian symbol next to it, but the nut roast didn’t, so I think to myself I’d better check it’s vegetarian. Bound to be, but peace of mind and all that. So I ask the friendly chap waiting on us, who tells me he’s pretty sure it is vegetarian. Pretty sure. So I interrogate this a bit more, and double-check it’s served with onion gravy, or something without meat-stock regardless. Again, bound to be. But our waiter has no idea what the one vegetarian option on his Sunday menu is served with, so after a bizarre exchange in which he checks a few times with me that I definitely want the vegetarian option, and I definitely want it made wet with something, I suggest it might be in the best interests of our future relationship together to go to the kitchen and maybe ask someone.
He returns with the news. It isn’t served with vegetarian gravy. In fact, it isn’t served with anything, as they’ve run out of the ingredients to make it. Existentially adrift with my phantom Sunday dinner disappearing before it was brought into existence, he then drops the next bit of news on me, a bit of news that I could tell from his expression he thought would be especially piquant. They’ve run out of beef.
Allow me a little moment here to paint the picture for you. In the heart of Newcastle’s dining central, at 6.30pm in a restaurant with capacity for over 200 diners and with less than 20 people in, there’s a Sunday dinner being served with no roast beef because they’ve ran out. And the one vegetarian option is off.
So back to it. They have corn-fed chickens in at least, so in lieu of beef we plump for that, and I find myself suddenly and alarmingly off-map on their menu choosing a filo parcel. It was that or ricotta, beetroot and truffle tortellini, which did sound pretty good, but when you come in for a Sunday dinner Italian doesn’t really appeal, no matter how exquisitely semi-dried the tomatoes are.
Meanwhile, over on the party table, they’ve started singing.
The baked flat mushrooms arrive and they look pretty good. Two big mushrooms served essentially as two halves of a burger bun with a mushroom fricassee between them and dressed with chilli, garlic and Madeira, drizzled with green pesto. With the chilli and garlic seemingly on the same train out of Newcastle as the nut roast, the mushrooms were bland but cooked well with a nice texture. The starter reminded me of nothing less than a bad Bloody Mary that you watch get made perfectly, presented beautifully, and then all you can taste is cheap vodka. The only flavour that popped out of this thing was olive oil.
Party table is stepping it up now, shouting, high-fiving and disturbing everyone in the restaurant who wasn’t them; I was starting to wonder why someone – anyone – from the staff doesn’t have a polite word.
The mains arrive, and again, look pretty good, but both turn out to be criminally inconsistent. The corn-fed chicken seems to have been sat sadly somewhere for a while, with a dry exterior and moist interior alongside seasoning that was nowhere to be seen in some areas and then clagged together in tongue-ambushing clumps elsewhere. Nestled between unpredictable vegetables, including crisp, tasty greens, flaccid carrots, insipid parsnips accompanied by an embarrassed, claggy, greasy Yorkshire pudding that would make Aunt Bessie blush, the best that can be said is that they’re generous with the gravy.
The filo parcel comes served with a delicious red, sticky, warm Cumberland vinaigrette alongside some delicious, crisp grilled pear. The filo parcel had lovely crumbly, flaky pastry, let down entirely by the contents. Ostensibly filled with sweet potato, squash, mushroom, Stilton and cranberry, the contents are inseparable by either taste or texture, and even taken together they couldn’t pull together a flavour between them. Bland, extremely disappointing, and complete with a burnt bit on top of the parcel concealed by rocket. Don’t think I didn’t spot that, Browns.
Still not having had anyone from the restaurant come over to remind them that, well, they were in a restaurant, the party table were now settling up the bill by having a blazing row with the staff about the number of drinks they’d ordered.
So the desserts came and went with the Italian Espresso Martini I told you about earlier – made with amaretto and completely gorgeous – and a white chocolate and raspberry blondie that was seemingly in a competition with its mushroom and filo predecessors to see who could be the blandest thing put in front of me today, and with that, it was finally over.
At the end of an infuriating experience, I wish I could feel sorry for Browns, because there’s a part of me that appreciates they were up and running on Grey Street before the transformative casual dining movement that’s taking place across the city right now, and it’s obvious – painfully obvious – that they’ve been left behind. What once would pass for a solid dining experience at their restaurant has now been relegated to somewhere a few steps better than a higher-end Wetherspoons, and I can’t give them a pass for that.
They’ve got so much going for them too. A beautiful building, friendly staff, fantastic location and a pretty decent menu, but all this counts for nothing if the food doesn’t deliver and the waiters don’t have knowledge and confidence in their menu to enable them to hit the bare beats of being able to describe what their food is served with, and whether or not core items are available before their customers order them. On top of this, it was impossible to ignore the experience being marred by the restaurant neglecting the impact an obviously disruptive table was having on all of the other patrons.
Altogether, I walk away with little more than an overriding impression of general inattentiveness across the board. With the big boys closing in all around Browns it’s time to stop pretending, start concentrating and get cracking with the business of delivering on the experience they promise us.
I genuinely wish them the best of luck.
Leigh is Scran on the Tyne’s Assistant Editor, and if you’d like to request that he reviews your venue you can email him directly at email@example.com.