You know when you are getting old (or sad) when you recall a trip to the Little Chef at Brownieside as being a bit of a treat!
Back then, at least 20 years ago, it was the closest thing to fast food that Alnwick district could boast (if boast is the right word!).
Last weekend, we stepped back inside the building for the first time since the roadside chain’s demise. And what a transformation!
From 20th century diner peddling conveyor-belt plastic food to contemporary, yet rustic, bistro producing freshly-prepared and cooked dishes, homemade cakes, lovingly-constructed sandwiches, healthy salads and the odd hearty meal.
The comparison could not be more stark.
It has been a stunning conversion of a tired site. As to the exact details of our previous visit, my memory fails me, but the area is now huge and could easily house parties or functions.
It is barn-like, with chunky oak beams and stone floor framing the space; it is light, with large windows and glass doors looking onto a nicely-landscaped garden and children’s play area; it is comfortable and certainly airy.
There is a variety of seating from which to chose – comfy armchairs by a roaring fire (when it’s lit!), farmhouse benches, standard chairs at solid wooden tables, or bar stools and tall, poser-style tables.
The restaurant is extremely child-friendly, with high-chairs aplenty and one corner dedicated to little ’uns, with toys and play mat.
There are no steps for little feet to stumble over and even the benches have had all sharp corners bevelled.
The climbing frame and play area outside will be great for toddlers in the summertime – and a lovely suntrap for adults. In fact, we arrived just before lunch service and there was a high proportion of mums with tots in quite a busy café.
With no curtains and few soft furnishings, it was quite echoey, with one child’s shrieking bouncing off the walls like a ping-pong ball. A lack of background music didn’t help.
As we had missed breakfast by seconds, we made a return visit on Sunday and the ambience was far more relaxed, although still no music.
The menu wasn’t vast, but big enough to suit most tastes and was written on a scroll on the wall, as well as mini blackboards scattered around. It’s quite a lot of information to digest and we spent a fair while scrutinising the options on both occasions. First up, lunch it was – a choice of four dishes, plus seven sandwiches, the eighth was sold out.
There was also soup (mushroom, on our visit) with a choice of malted brown bread or white bread (£5.95), and a spectacular selection of imaginative salads – for example, butternut squash, mixed seeds, pesto and basil; or chargrilled courgette with pea, mint, feta and toasted pine nuts; or sweet potato, kale, sweetcorn and feta. Any quiche, sausage roll, Scotch egg and two salads was £9.50; a selection of three salads was £7.95; or one salad for £3.
Our lunches, ordered and pre-paid at the counter, were delightful. We started with filter coffees, which arrived in homely mugs and we were told to help ourselves to a free refill – nice touch!
I had posh fish finger and tartare sauce sandwich (£6) – made with real, white chunks of fish fried in a light batter, thick, thick slices of soft bread and a sharp sauce. It was so substantial that a knife and fork was required to eat it anything like politely.
Mrs L opted for crispy bacon with caramelised onion and brie open sandwich (£6) – a triumphant combination.
We ordered a side portion of fries (£2), which were sprinkled with flakes of sea salt and equally delicious.
We were so impressed that we returned earlier on Sunday. This time, breakfasts were the order of the day. Opposite, the sausage sandwich, with added egg (£5, plus £1.50) was great.
I couldn’t resist Carnaby’s cooked breakfast (£9) – sausage (proper, meaty, butcher’s sausage), bacon, black pudding, homemade spicy beans (wow!), tomato, mushrooms and a choice of eggs, scrambled for me. It was all so freshly cooked and piping hot.
I’ve always thought that you can’t beat a home-cooked breakfast. Don’t tell Mrs L, but I think I may just have been proved wrong!
IT’S FRESH AND VERY EXCITING
Carnaby’s is wheelchair-friendly, with two parking bays for the disabled right outside the front door and a specially adapted toilet. In fact, the loos, in general, are worth a visit on their own for their chic style.
Youngsters have their own small menu, each meal costing £4.95 – fishfingers and fries, spaghetti bolognese or lunch boxes. And of course there is the splendid array of home-baked cakes and pastries – the sausage rolls look amazing.
There is also a shop at the entrance selling high-end gifts.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Breakfast (until 11.30am)
Homemade cinnamon granola......£5.50
Smashed avocado with lime......£5
Bacon or sausage sandwich......£5
Bakery (all £1.50)
Toasted teacakes, crumpets, pain au chocolat, croissant
Lunch (from 11.30am)
Beef burger, bacon, cheese, fries......£10.50
Crispy chicken club/bacon......£10.50
Battered haddock & fries......£11
Creamy pesto gnocchi, with courgette, pea & spinach......£8.50
Sandwiches (all £6)
Avocado, bacon & rocket; goats’ cheese, roasted pepper & chorizo open; smoked salmon & cream cheese; roast ham & Dijon mustard mayonnaise; mature Cheddar & spiced tomato chutney
Quality of food......9
Use of local food......8
Value for money......8
Access for the disabled......9
Toilet for the disabled......Yes
Verdict: Amazing, fresh food in a fantastic, contemporary setting.
Winter opening times: 9.30am–4pm every day.