Tees Business meets Teesside royalty as it talks food with Eugene McCoy about The Crathorne Arms…
Eugene McCoy isn’t one for making grandiose statements. He’s one of the UK’s most celebrated restaurateurs from a family whose story is entwined within the very history of Teesside. His restaurants have been lauded as the UK’s greatest and now The Crathorne Arms, his latest venture, this time with wife Barbara at the helm, has been voted as the region’s best by Teesside’s business community.
“I’ve been very lucky,” insists the 65-year-old as he lounges on a sofa and sips wine within the dining room of the Crathorne Arms, the pub-cum-restaurant he and Barbara have lovingly reinvigorated and nurtured over the past 18 months.
“I absolutely adore the industry, I love restaurants, I love food, I love wine – too much! – and I love people. And it’s people that make restaurants.
“I love Teesside and the people here, so to get an award that’s from them means every bit as much as any of the national awards we won in the past. It’s an honour. When I told Barbara we’d been voted the best on Teesside, she said that’s probably as good an accolade as we could get. Our customers are the heart of the business.
“We didn’t set out to win awards. All we wanted was to have a nice place for people to come out to, so we do feel quite honoured.”
Both Eugene and Barbara come from Middlesbrough. Barbara lived most of her young life on The Avenue in Linthorpe, while Eugene grew up in Brookfield where the McCoys’ neighbours included names that have passed into Teesside folklore, including singer Chris Rea’s family, Colliers the milk people, the Hamiltons of legendary music store fame and printers Boddy’s.
He was childhood friends with Rea and his fellow rock legends Paul Rodgers and David Coverdale. But Eugene’s journey took him into restaurants rather than music.
At the age of 16, he helped out at his eldest brother John’s club, Mr McCoy’s in Middlesbrough, and later the original Purple Onion, a coffee bar run by brothers Tom and Peter. Then, in the early 1970s, John opened the Kirklevington Country Club – better known as simply The Kirk – that played host to the likes Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix.
The Kirk’s restaurant attracted the attention of Egon Ronay before Eugene, Peter and Tom opened The Cleveland Tontine on the A19. Eugene and Tom ran it for nearly 40 years, during which time it became one of the most celebrated restaurants in the country, winning the Egon Ronay Award and later the Gourmet Society’s North East Restaurant of the Year.
Now this new adventure means Eugene prefers to look forward to future success.
He recalls: “When we came here, it had been closed for six months, but it has a great history and is a great pub in a fantastic village run by a wonderful man, Lord Crathorne. It was exactly the sort of place we knew we could do something with.
“You have to work some daft hours in this industry and you’ve got to be willing to go the extra mile for your customers, so we’ve worked hard and put whatever we could into it.”
Having started again from scratch, they have come a long way to return to their winning ways, but both are quick to share their praise –with Barbara’s brother Roland Connelly for his financial advice, for the friends who rallied around them to get the project off the ground and with their staff.
Of head chef David Henry, Eugene crows: “We are so fortunate to have not only a good family man with a strong work ethic but a fine chef with a commitment to listening and giving the customers what they want”, while manageress Kirstine Walton “took on the mantle of a managerial position and has done exceptionally well in leading a great front of house team.”
But what about the food?
Eugene replies: “I think about food all day and I talk about food every day with the boys in the kitchen. You’ve got to have a passion for doing this job. It can be English, French, Italian, anything, but we’re not Heston Blumenthal – we just try to put on interesting food along with good wines and beers. If you do that then you’re hitting your target.”