If you’d driven through the village of Crathorne, up near Yarm, 18 months ago you’d have found a pleasant, well-kept village with that all too common feature of the English village, a closed down, boarded up pub. Stop there today and the place is filling fast on a Tuesday evening. “Something special on tonight?” “No, this is normal.” It’s open, warm and welcoming, a string of rooms stuffed with Turkish rugs, comfy sofas, old oak tables, country chairs, candles, candelabras and Moroccan tin lamps, a laidback mix of old and new.
There are oddball details: salt comes in a miniature cut-glass vase, pepper in a vintage liqueur glass, each with an antique teaspoon. There are fresh flowers on every table and a competent and confident waitress reels off the soup of the day and the fish special, and looks after us with blinding efficiency. This feels like a place that knows exactly where it’s going.
Of course it does. The owner is Eugene McCoy, the name long behind the Cleveland Tontine, the restaurant marooned on a traffic island between the A19 and A172 and which Eugene and his brothers Tom and Peter ran to great acclaim for some 40 years.
They crammed it with vintage lamps, wonky crockery, ferns and parasols and gave us the likes of seafood pancake and duck in cherry sauce at a time when British food was uniformly awful. This was 1976 and when Egon Ronay named this breezily eccentric place his Restaurant of the Year, it was an overnight sensation. Awards and consultancies followed. McCoy advised GNER on their on-board catering and he showed up on TV in big, red trademark glasses. When Peter and Tom left to open their own places, Eugene continued at the Tontine as well as opening and closing the glamorous Rooftop Restaurant at the Baltic in Gateshead (didn’t like that one) and McCoy’s Brasserie in Newcastle. Most recently he took on the forsaken Crathorne Arms.
Lucky he did. Last year he left the Tontine and went bust. Fortunately for him, the Crathorne Arms was not part of the bankruptcy proceedings and so he and his wife Barbara moved over the shop and set about remodelling the pub. Back to square one. It’s going well. Tables are at a premium and at 64, with his flowing, collar-length hair, rimless specs and tartan trousers, Eugene looks like an ageing rock star, but ageing well. Nor has he lost his verve as he flits between bar and restaurant pulling pints and clearing plates.
He still knows what sells, too, and you suspect could do most of it blindfold. Seafood pancake, prawn cocktail, black pudding beignets with mustard mayo for starters, and to follow, steak, burger and chips, sea bass with risotto Milanese and borlotti bean stew with puddings of panna cotta, passion fruit and ginger cheesecake, knickerbocker glory and all this at a very reasonable £17.95 for three courses when you eat from the prix fixe before 7.15pm. The bar menu has sirloin steak sandwiches, fish finger sandwiches, fish and chips, a plate of meat, bread and olives and that signature seafood pancake again.
The à la carte proved fair value at £7.95 for a blue cheese and walnut soufflé and £7 for the seafood pancake filled with white fish, salmon and prawns in a thermidor sauce. Both dishes were rich, creamy and so scaldingly hot that they were still bubbling like Vesuvius 10 minutes after being brought to the table. Not a complaint, unless you mind losing the roof of your mouth.
The fish special of cod with shrimps in a leek and cream sauce (£16.95) was fine: a generous piece of cod, plenty of prawns and another liberal hand on the cream jug. A decent slice of belly pork (£16.95) had a good layer of crackling, though I’d have preferred a bit more rendering of the fat beneath. It came with apple and fondant potato and a sweetish, creamy, apple, thyme and cider sauce.
So, it’s not Tontine Mark Two, much less the twiddly minimalism of the Baltic but rock solid country pub food, good beer and wine, and thoroughly embracing surroundings. You might wish for a left field surprise or two on the menu but you won’t go wrong.
Before leaving, we chatted to our waitress about the tipping scandals that had recently made the national news – and their system. Yes, she said, every penny was properly shared out unlike some nearby places she had worked. It was confirmed by an online post I found from a former waitress at the Tontine.
“All I can say is not only is Eugene McCoy a very talented chef he is a kind, decent gentleman who was a pleasure to work for. He always made sure ‘the lasses’ got their tips and had a safe way of getting home after work and trust me that says a lot.” Sure does. It’s great that he’s still enthused after all the years and that, like the Crathorne Arms, he’s bounced back in such fine form. Can’t keep a good man down.
• Crathorne Arms, Crathorne, North Yorkshire TS15 0BA. 01642 961402, www.thecrathornearms.co.uk. Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 12-2.30pm & 6pm-9pm; Sunday, 12-3.30pm. Price: Prix Fixe: £17.95, à la carte dinner for two £62 plus wine