Friday, 7 December 2012

Save the arts – eat cake!

Newcastle city centre looks at first glance like any other identikit British high street. Once you’ve tired of shopping at the enormous M&S or Primark or H&M, the usual suspects are ready to offer you an overpriced hot drink: Starbucks, Costa and Nero. God forbid that you go all “British” and ask for tea – it will be foul.

There is, however, good food and drink to be had at a fair price elsewhere in the city centre: in our arts venues. No Swiss tax avoidance systems here, nor a shame-faced offer to pay UK tax as if it’s some kind of charity opt-in. These are the public venues which last month were threatened with a 100 per cent cut in council funding. They offer some of the best entertainment in our city and some of the best food. Here’s a quick tour heading from north to south of the city:

The Great North Museum (free entry) boasts a planetarium, an interactive model of Hadrian's Wall, a life-size T-Rex replica skeleton, a full size model of an elephant and two mummies from Ancient Egypt that terrified me as a child. That’s all very well, but what about the cake? So tasty that I forgot to take a photo of it before I ate it. There’s also a large playroom for toddlers and a good gift shop, which as any Philistine will tell you is essential for a satisfactory museum visit.
The Great North Museum just north of Haymarket. It's nestling behind the huge Christmas tree that Bergen sends us every year. Thanks, Norwegian friends!
Northern Stage is one of the top producing-theatres in the country and also presents the best in visiting theatre. I remember seeing Little Shop of Horrors there in the 1980s when it was still called Newcastle Playhouse, and I certainly won’t forget the Byelorussian play I saw with my dad this summer that featured a naked, screaming and fully waxed woman being doused in black paint. Tim Key and his bath visited the Northern Stage last month, one of the best acts I’ve seen in a long time. Northern Stage also has a busy café serving good food that includes a large tapas menu. I like having a hot chocolate and looking out onto the university grounds. Not at the juicy young students, I would never do that. I just look at the grass…

I often think if you want a cheap lunch, follow the silver pound. Pensioners know a trick or two and they’re not going to be fooled into paying over the odds for a panini when all they want is a sandwich. This is true of the next two venues – the Laing Art Gallery (free entry)  and the Tyneside Cinema - both serve good no-nonsense food. Today at the Laing I had a fried egg stottie and a pot of tea for £4.40, then necked some chocolate tiffin.

The Laing is very central, just off the main shopping drag, and has a large playroom for toddlers adjoining the café.
So welcoming! Who needs a McWee when public venues invite you in?
Last time I ate there my old Latin teacher dragged me round the Northern Spirit exhibition which celebrates north east artists including the painter John Martin and engraver Thomas Bewick. It was like a school trip but without a cagoule or the egg sandwiches and I admit I enjoyed it.

The Tyneside Cinema is similarly central. My dad and I go there most Sundays, or Thursdays if we’re seeing one of the excellent National Theatre Live broadcasts. He loves its ruched pink curtain that is raised with a satisfying "shhhhhhhh" at the beginning of a film. He once commented that if he ever wins the lottery, he would get a curtain like that for his bedroom window (presumably my mother would be spending her half of the winnings on a divorce, citing unreasonable behaviour).

The Tyneside has a small ground floor coffee bar and upstairs are its famous coffee rooms, a local institution that’s been feeding Geordies since the 1930s. Intriguingly the menu claims previous customers include Rowan Atkinson but makes no mention of what he ate or where he sat. For under £4 you can get a burger or beans on toast – sometimes it’s all you want, isn’t it?
I imagine there was some kind of petition
I tried the Tyneside's Christmas menu this week and can highly recommend their Bakewell Blitz cake. You can become a Friend of the Tyneside which gives two free cinema tickets, a £2 reduction on each ticket and a 10% discount on food and drink.

The beautiful Grade I listed Theatre Royal, regional home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, Opera North and Rambert Dance Company, celebrated its 175th birthday this year. It was where we were taken on school trips to see ballet and where my neighbour used to take me to see the Christmas pantomime, only marginally more exciting than the whole box of Milk Tray she’d take for JUST ME AND HER. It was here I first met Rowan Atkinson when as a shy 16 year old I asked for his autograph. There’s a blue plaque commemorating the event (written in biro like all the best ones). More recently it’s where me and my dad have seen King Lear, Othello and Julius Caesar and where we made a merciful pact never to see a Shakespeare comedy again. 

The Theatre Royal is home to Pasqualinos, offering stone-baked sourdough pizzas every day with a bargain two-for-one deal. This works out at about £3.50 a pizza, about what you'd pay for garlic bread in a lot of high street chains.
The theatre is also home to one of the best coffee bars in Newcastle – 9 Bar Coffee.
Hurray for independents!
In the summer you can enjoy an Italian-style lunch on the elegant Georgian-fronted Grey Street, one of the most beautiful streets in the country.

Or you could nip across the road to The Stand, Newcastle’s best comedy venue. It opened a year ago and applies the same values to the food in its cosy bistro as it does to its comedy – the best at an excellent price. Let’s just say Daniel Kitson for £3. The head chef's experience shows in the international range and quality of the menu.
Crispy Oriental tofu with hoisin & pancakes; Pad Thai with sweet potato & hot peanut sauce; Ginger sticky toffee pudding and ice cream.
The Stand offers a three course Sunday roast all day, which at £12 is ridiculously good value. It also has a large outside terrace that is lovely on a summer’s evening. 

If you head down Grey Street you reach the River Tyne. Turn left (don’t go straight on, you might drown or, worse, get to Gateshead HA HA HA) and you will reach the Live Theatre, a leading new writing theatre. I saw the excellent The Prize there during the Olympics; the Live also played host to most of Newcastle Gateshead’s comedy festival this summer. It has one of the best Italian restaurants in the city, Caffe Vivo and is next to the Broad Chare, Newcastle’s first gastropub that caters surprisingly well for vegetarians. If you go, get the cauliflower fritters with curry mayonnaise, they’re gorgeous. Both are part of 21 Hospitality Group and the partnership with the theatre sees a proportion of turnover invested back into the work of Live Theatre.

Lastly, slightly off the beaten track on the Ouseburn is Seven Stories, awarded the title National Centre for Children's Books the same week Newcastle council proposed to cut all its funding.  It has an excellent children’s bookshop and fascinating exhibitions – I’ve particularly enjoyed the Judith Kerr exhibition (nearly managed not to cry in public over the death of Mog the Cat) and the Puffin Books 70th anniversary. There’s a family friendly café and I’ll be honest – the buggy to cake ratio is far too high for me to set foot in there. Far better to go during school time when the place is empty and you have the dressing up box to yourself.

With the exception of the privately-owned Stand, all of these venues face cuts to funding. Whether or not it will be the proposed 100 per cent remains to be seen – you can have your say here. It is, however, certain that funding will be cut and these institutions need visitors – to their cafes, their galleries, their exhibitions, their plays, films and comedy. If we don’t use them we will definitely lose them. Next time you fancy lunch in town, remember that hidden behind the bright international coffee outlets there are some local cafes that could do with your help. They probably make a decent cup of tea, too.


  1. Great blog Kate. I know the council needs to make cut backs but 100% cuts to the Arts? Ridiculous!! By the way, is that you doing an impression of Foxy Loxy? I still have him tucked away in storage in Australia!

  2. Brilliant blog - 3 of my greatest loves... Newcastle, Cake and Heritage all rolled into one!