Our expert guide to the best restaurants, cafes and bars in the beautifully green countryside of county Durham. Here you will find everything from Lindisfarne oysters, lobster sandwiches and savoury chelsea buns spiked with rosemary and cheddar.
Sandwiched between the dry-stone walls of the Yorkshire Dales, the wind-tugged moors and forests of Northumberland and the urban swagger of Newcastle, County Durham has a tendency to slip off the culinary map. It’s a region often passed through on the way to destinations that show their charms more overtly.
Linger, however, and you’ll wonder why you haven’t explored it before. Among the county’s stone-built villages and rugged moors is a larder as well stocked as any if you know where to look.
Durham, with its A-list university and 12th-century cathedral, seems the natural place to begin, and I arrive just in time to catch the city’s monthly Producers’ Market on Market Place, which also houses a permanent covered market. I’m pulled between voluptuous yemistes (rice-stuffed peppers), wood-fired sourdoughs, and burgundy slabs of Aberdeen Angus beef from Broom House Farm.
Towards the cathedral, a queue of students snaking up the cobbled street tells me I’ve reached Durham’s go-to coffee shop, Flat White Kitchen. A sibling of Flat White around the corner, its stripped wooden tables spread over two floors of a 17th-century townhouse.
Both serve Ouseburn coffee and cakes made on-site (including a legendary rocky road) but Flat White Kitchen also offers pancakes and savouries and runs a monthly supper club.
Nearby, at the relaxed Claypath Deli, a husband and wife team dish out equally fine coffee, plus Mediterranean-inspired produce and plates. Most dishes revolve around home-baked breads, from rye sourdoughs to challas and slowly-fermented ciabattas.
For a city its size, Durham is strangely lacking in restaurants, with locals still mourning the 2015 closure of Bistro 21, owned by Newcastle food legend Terry Laybourne. Happily, though, its chef Ruari MacKay relocated to the city’s Garden House Inn, so you can still sample the Leybourne vibe.
With its relaxed shabby-chic décor, this cleverly manages to be both laidback country inn and elegant restaurant; slouch in a fireside armchair with a Durham Gin and Korean spicy pork bar snack or, in the evening, dine in the candlelit conservatory. Don’t miss the lobster sandwich, a steal at £12.
South of Durham, near Darlington, is the Raby Hunt. Chef-owner James Close was raised nearby and, as a boy, foraged Hamsterley Forest for wild mushrooms. He taught himself to cook, nearly became a professional golfer, then restored the inn in the village of Summerhouse. Three years later it won a Michelin star, and last year notched up a second – the first restaurant in the Northeast to do so.
A warning: when dining here, start early, as the performance takes a good three hours. The only offering is a tasting menu of 11 courses, and many of those come in several ‘stages’, so the real tally is more like 16. Think theatre, not dinner.
James seeks out seriously good ingredients and applies technical wizardry to transform them into works of art. I progress from glossy French caviar to plump Lindisfarne oyster, raw Australian wagyu beef and locally grown salad leaves. Yuzu, Japan’s delicious citrus, makes frequent appearances too, and James’ fascination with Japan has extended to sending one of his chefs to train there.
I’m captivated by the carefully choreographed flavours – James has a playfulness that makes it all huge fun. There’s the wacky crockery; visual shockery from dishes such as squab leg, claws and all, draped across the plate. There’s wordplay like the truffle truffle petit four. And skulls, about which James seems to have quite a thing.
Not only does a life-sized silver skull take pride of place between the wine decanters but dinner ends with skull-shaped chocolates whose message appears to be “Eat well before you die.” If you’ve (cleverly) booked well ahead, toddle upstairs to one of the Raby Hunt’s two rooms. Otherwise, splash out at 17th-century Headlam Hall, a mile away.
In contrast, it’s the relaxed buzz as well as the food that pulls punters to the 15th-century Bay Horse Inn, just south of Darlington. This is the perfect gastropub, with drinkers in the bar-side snug providing proper pub atmosphere while the gorgeous dining rooms on either side deliver dishes that are both classy and affordable. “I cook what I want to eat,” says chef-owner Marcus Bennett. Happily it’s also what diners want to eat, as I confirm after trying his signature 12-hour braised beef with piccolo parsnips and green béarnaise. The inn is super in summer, with its glass-roofed extension at the rear spilling onto a terrace and walled garden.
Next stop is the handsome market town of Barnard Castle on the north bank of the Tees, dominated by the ruins of the castle that spawned it and home to the grandiose Bowes Museum. The foodie draw, though, is The Moody Baker, whose imaginative, high-quality produce rivals that of any artisan bakery in the country.
Alongside Gilchester-flour breads, scones and stotties (rolls traditionally eaten as ‘bait’ by miners down the pits), there are frilly-edged wolf pies, filled with steak cooked in one of the local Wolf ales; Guinness and black pudding sausage rolls; and monster Yorkshire curd tarts. But the star is the savoury chelsea bun, packed with fresh rosemary and topped with seeds and cheddar. I watch baker Sarah Sawyer bring trays of them hot from the oven and within minutes they’re gone.
If wood-fired baking is your thing, try the full english breakfast pizza at Cross Lanes, one of the county’s many fabulous farmshops. This live-wire business not only sells its own rare-breed pork, organic lamb and grass-fed Shorthorn beef, but has sheep grazing on its grass roof and geese patrolling the site. It’s a great place to try
In nearby Hutton Magna, it’s easy to miss the tiny, whitewashed cottage that houses The Oak Tree Inn. Despite its rustic interior this is more restaurant than inn, where six evenings a week Glasgow-born Alastair Ross (ex Savoy) delivers robust dishes from fabulous local produce.
I start with home-cured salmon with crab mayonnaise, pink grapefruit and radish, as pleasing to the eye as to the stomach. I dive into a main of flavour-packed Teesdale lamb with merguez sausage, mash and confit red onions. Gosh it’s good.
I stay at Romaldkirk, 10 minutes’ drive north, a pretty village with three large greens, one overlooked by the honey-stoned Rose and Crown Inn. Bedrooms here are small but stylishly furnished, and there’s a choice of pub food in the bar or fine dining in the oak-panelled dining room. But it’s the breakfasts that shine for me, with homemade granola, smoky beans on focaccia toast, and smoked haddock omelette with Cotherstone cheese sauce a welcome change from the usual.
Moving north, the landscape evolves from rolling farmland to deliciously desolate North Pennine moors, studded with deserted lead mines and evocatively named landmarks like Cauldron Snout and High Force.
Dropping into Weardale and up the other side I reach bijou Blanchland on the Northumberland border. The village is named after the abbey built for the White Monks in 1165, whose abbot’s lodgings later became an inn and are now the Lord Crewe Arms hotel.
A superb restoration means you can enjoy its ecclesiastical splendours in comfort, from 21 swish bedrooms to a baronial dining hall with vast stone fireplace, plus a vaulted crypt bar. The chef, Australian-born Simon Hicks (ex-Hix Soho), describes his food as “shenanigan-free British food”.
This ranges from meats roasted on the fireside spit (on Friday Pork & Pud nights, it’s a whole porchetta – stuffed pig – which you feast on at the banqueting table) to flat-iron steak with brown shrimps in The Bishop’s Dining Room upstairs or bar bait such as ‘squasage’ on toast in the bar.
I abandon the Sunday morning bells of Blanchland’s abbey for those of an equally magical spot, The Black Bull Inn in the heart of Weardale. Owner Duncan Davis installed a set of bells next door that attract ringers from across the country.
The Bull’s other big draw is its hearty Sunday lunch, which you enjoy in the convivial company of local families and pensioners. I have the roast Weardale lamb, with a Yorkshire pudding the size of a cricket ball, and somehow also find space for the salted caramel and chocolate fondant pud.
I get a final fill of chocolate at County Durham’s most unlikely café: the Viennese-style Kaffeehaus Amadeus run by a pair of Durham university academics who decided to swap teaching for creating the confections they grew up with in Austria and Germany.
It’s a good thing they did, because the cakes here are sublime, with pear and chocolate vying with sachertorte for my top vote. As I drive the final eight miles to Durham, I declare County Durham to be firmly on my gastronomic map. If it’s not already, get it on yours.
HOW TO DO IT
Double rooms at The Rose & Crown cost from £135, b&b.
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Words | Clare Hargreaves
Images | Clare Hargreaves, Steve Landles, Bay Horse Hurworth, Duncan Davis, KG photography, The Lord Crew Arms at Blanchard