Award-winning writer Harry Pearson writes exclusively for Tees Business…
There are some sentences you never expect to hear. One of them is “I’ve got a new girlfriend” coming out of the mouth of a 55-year-old man. But this time last year I heard it quite a lot for the simple reason that the man saying it was me.
Anyroad, one of the things my new girlfriend said to me quite early on in our relationship was: “Will you take me to Middlesbrough? I have always wanted to go to Middlesbrough.” My girlfriend grew up in Wales, but even so I thought she was probably exaggerating.
Still, it was nice to picture her as a child shaking her dad’s arm and pleading: “Please, please can we go to Teesside this summer?” and her dad replying: “I’m sorry but your mum is insisting on Sorrento for some reason.”
“Yes,” I told my girlfriend, “We can do that. There are some great clothes shops, mima and these fantastic micro-pubs and…”
“We can have lunch,” my new girlfriend interjected.
At this point I began to feel a bit nervous.
You see, amongst her many accomplishments my new girlfriend was once an inspector for the Michelin Red Guide. She was the person who assessed the consistency of Michel Roux’s clafoutis and decided if Gordon Ramey’s ruby chard was sufficiently wilted. And when she’d finished in England she went and did the same thing in France.
So you can guess that I felt a little under pressure.
The main problem was that I was looking back to the last time I’d l taken a new girlfriend out to dinner in Middlesbrough, which was in about 1985.
I recalled a meal in which the starter was fruit juice and the roast chicken came with gravy so thick you needed a steak knife to cut it, roast potatoes that looked like charcoal briquettes and a dollop of cabbage that had been boiled until it resembled a dead jellyfish.
The pudding was nothing to write home about either, unless your parents happened to be health inspectors.
I thought of meals before that one, too. Going with my Aunty Molly to the posh upstairs restaurant at Binns when I was about six. There was a woman in an evening gown playing the harp and my request for a prawn cocktail was refused on the grounds that prawns were seafood and therefore so dangerously foreign that only men who had done military service in the Far East were allowed to eat them.
All the other food was white and mashed so that people who’d left their false teeth at home could eat it, which was just as well since my Uncle Joe had forgotten his.
I tried to think of something positive – the frothy coffee at Rea’s up at the top of Linthorpe Road; the sandwiches from The Little Pork Shop that my mum and dad and I would buy after shopping trips on Saturday mornings, eating them in our Morris Oxford whilst sitting in a carpark round the back of Jack Hatfield’s; the Italian deli, Italcibo, where you could buy authentic, doughy Neapolitan pizzas that came in a vacuum-sealed polythene bag.
It wasn’t much. But thankfully things have changed since then.
Teesside now has a bubblingly ebullient restaurant scene, from the glorious restored splendour of Acklam Hall to the socially conscious excellence of The Fork in the Road.
Only last week I met a couple of friends who work in the art department at the University of Northumbria. “We’ve just been to Middlesbrough,” they said. “We went to the new restaurant at mima. Jeez, why isn’t there anywhere like that in Newcastle?”
But a year ago I wasn’t quite so certain.
“So,” I said when we got off the train at Middlesbrough, “Where do you want to go to eat?”
“I made a list of places that sounded interesting,” my new girlfriend said. “Which is nearest?”
Half an hour later we were sitting at the speckled marble counter in The Curing House on Bedford Street, eating a big platter of charcuterie and drinking chilled manzanilla.
“This is good,” I said, trying to keep the note of surprise out of my voice.
“Good?” my girlfriend replied. ‘No, it’s great. I feel like I’m in Manhattan!”
Like I say, there are some sentences you never expect to hear – but it’s very, very nice when you do.