First impressions speak volumes. From the outside, the Red Lion at Milfield, north of Wooler, looks like a traditional, stone-built coaching inn.
It actually dates back to the mid-1700s and sits among the sites of many battles between the Scots and English.
Through the centuries the inn will have drawn in people to rest, revive, freshen.
I was expecting the theme to continue inside – all olde worlde charm, nick-nacks, chintz furnishings, alcoves, whitewashed, bulging walls and thick oak beams.
But somehow it was more like walking into someone’s front room, quite plain really.
Chunky wooden tables and chairs were shoehorned in, making it a full-on dining experience but leaving very little room for those preferring just a drink and to prop up the bar.
So we quickly established it was very much an eater’s pub, particularly at peak times, like the busy Saturday night when we bowled up. Luckily, we had booked, otherwise we might have struggled to get in.
The homely setting suited the cooking, too. It was not pretentious gastropub, more liked popping round to your granny’s house for a hearty feast. Although it was packed and noisy, the atmosphere was strangely lacking – perhaps some background music would have jollied it along.
The heaving pub meant the waitresses were rushed off their feet, their mood hassled but we were served promptly.
And so to the food. The Red Lion is worth a visit if only for its commitment to local food producers and suppliers, a list of which proudly adorns one of the black beams.
It boasts M&J Seafood, butchers RG Foreman of Norham, Farm to Freeze and Doddington Farm at Wooler, and Heatherslaw Mill at Cornhill. More restaurants should be encouraged to shout about local sourcing.
The menu was not extensive, but included most of the usual pub suspects.
The specials board appeared a little more adventurous, with the likes of sweet and sour glazed pork chop with new potatoes and pak choi (£10), or pan-fried sea-trout and tomato, red onion and herb salad and deep-fried potato wedges (£13), or grilled chicken breast with wild mushroom, asparagus and potato gnocchi (£11.50).
Prices seemed pretty reasonable, with soup and baguette costing £3, grilled gammon steak, £9.50, and all desserts £4.50.
A busy day with no time to eat left us needing some comfort food, so I went for the fishcakes with a lemon and chive dressing (£6.50) to start and steak and ale pie, with suet pastry and home-cut chips and peas (£11).
My wife was equally peckish and went for breaded chicken goujons with sweet chilli or garlic mayonnaise (£6), which she shared with our daughter, to start and a main course of 8-10oz rib-eye steak, home-made chunky chips, onion rings, tomato and mushroom (£14.50).
The steak and ale pie also took the fancy of our daughter.
Each dish was pleasant with a definite stamp of home-cooking.
The fishcakes had a crisp, breadcrumbed exterior which gave way to a soft centre of mash, salmon chunks and spring onion – subtly tasty without being an explosion of strong flavours. The mayonnaise-style dressing was a decent foil for the fish.
Strips of proper chicken graced the goujons and both wife and daughter were happy.
The steak and ale pie, with its suet pastry was just what the doctor ordered, wholesome and filling.
Mighty chunks of beef spilled out of the belly of pie, flavoured with more than a hint of beer. The pastry itself was thin and not too heavy.
The chips were also obviously hand-cut and delicious. Mine were smothered in gravy, which, personally, I could have done without. I also found the lack of vegetable other than a few peas disappointing.
My wife’s plate was an explosion of steak, onion rings and chips. By the time she had finished, it was clean, which says it all.
I pushed out the boat and plumped for Bramley apple crumble with custard for dessert. It was nearly all sizeable slices of apple with a sprinkling of crumble – a fruity ratio. The custard was more instant than creamy, but it amounted to another good-value dish.
The other two surprised me with their choice of a pot of tea and round of yummy, warm shortbread to finish.
My meal was washed down with a nice pint of well-kept ale (Tyneside Blonde).