A girls' weekend of fine dining, vintage clothes shops and culture in Newcastle upon Tyne proves that there's more to The Toon than Viz magazine and half-dressed revellers partying in The Bigg Market
Newcastle has changed a lot in the 20 years since I last lived there as an impoverished English Literature student. Returning to the banks of the Tyne after many years spent living in London and Singapore I was eager to show off its north eastern delights to four girlfriends from Surrey who were joining me for a grown-up girls' weekend away, staying in a niche hotel right in the centre of town.
The Grey Street Hotel (Grey Street Hotel, 2-12 Grey Street, Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, NE1 6EE) sits at the bottom of the elegant Georgian sweep of Grey Street, half way between the banks of the River Tyne and the 41 metre tall Monument to Earl Grey (he of the fragrant tea). The hotel made an excellent base for our short trip as it was right in the middle of all the action and made getting out and about very easy indeed. We were able to drop shopping bags off in the middle of the day and pop back in for extra layers when the temperature dropped at night. Our rooms were beautifully appointed and the beds were very comfortable which helped on Saturday night when the noise of people outside on the street drifted up and kept us entertained. The hotel cost just under £150 each for our two night stay.
Newcastle was never short of places to eat. There were kebab shops, chip shops and, as a student, you could always rely on a giant cheese savoury stottie to get you through the day but my how things have changed. On Friday night we sipped chilled Vignonier and ate at Barn Asia (St James Boulevard, Waterloo Square, Newcastle Upon Tyne NE1 4DP; 0191 221 1000; www.barnasia.com) where we fought (in the nicest possible way) for the scrapings at the bottom of the dish of our scallops with bacon and peanuts, ooohed and aaahed about the soba noodle salad and licked the plate of the salt and pepper squid. A dessert of honeycomb and chocolate ice cream in a Japanese mochi didn't last more than two minutes once we all dug in, despite our attempts not to look too greedy. Starters at Barn Asia cost between £4 - £7, main courses range from £12 - £15 and desserts begin at £5 and cost up to around £7.50.
On Saturday morning we stayed closer to home with brunch at The Cafe Royal (8 Nelson St, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tyne And Wear; 0191 231 3000; www.sjf.co.uk/caferoyal/about.php) where we devoured locally reared bacon, bright golden yolked eggs and freshly made smoothies. Each of us ate our fill and drank china cups filled with freshly made coffee for under £10 a head.
In the evening we travelled in spirit to Kerala and ate at Rasa (27 Queen St, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tyne And Wear NE1 3UG; 0191 232 7799; www.rasarestaurants.com) down near the Quayside where the fresh, clean flavours blew our minds and the bill didn't blow the bank balance, we each had three courses and paid around £30 a head which included wine. A selection of chutneys and dips were presented to us as we chose our wines for the evening and between us we ate lemon duck rice, king prawns and the lightest prata I've eaten outside Asia.
Sunday breakfast was taken in the light and airy cafe at the foot of The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (Gateshead Quays, South Shore Rd, Gateshead, Tyne And Wear NE8 3BA; 0191 478 1810; www.balticmill.com) where our pancakes drowned happily in a sea of maple syrup and the coffee hit just the right spot. The Toon still has its cheese savoury stotties, and they still sort you out for the day but there is a wealth of cuisine just waiting to be tried and, being Newcastle, it's incredibly reasonably priced.
London, Paris, New York - Newcastle?
Antony Gormley's 'Angel of the North' heralded a new interest in arts and culture in the north east and when it came to deciding what to do first we were spoilt for choice. Up at the top of town the University Gallery (Sandyford Road Campus, Sandyford Rd, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Northumberland NE1 8ST; 0191 227 4424) showed an exhibition of the local Byker born world-renowned catwalk photographer Chris Moore (www.northumbria.ac.uk/universitygallery/exhibitions2011/chrismoore) with stunning images of Isabella Blow and Yves Saint Laurent on show from Moore's extensive archive. Tucked away at the bottom of town at The Side gallery (1-3 Side, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tyne And Wear NE1 3JE; 0191 232 2208; www.amber-online.com) photographer Zed Nelson's exhibition 'Love Me' made us laugh, made us wince and made us think.
Because Newcastle is a compact city, built upon the sloping banks of the Tyne, it didn't take us long to fit in a lot of shopping, coffee and culture. After taking in Chris Moore's exhibition we sipped lattes and people watched among the shopping crowds on Northumberland Street. The food hall in Fenwicks (Northumberland Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE99 1AR; 0191 232 5100) was raided for gifts for small people and husbands left holding the fort and and then we enjoyed several divine Downton Abbey moments in the Vintage clothes shops along High Bridge Street. I picked up a cashmere cardigan for under £20 in the treasure trove that is Attica (2 Old George Yard, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tyne And Wear NE1 1EZ; 0191 261 4062; www.atticavintage.co.uk) and Karin, whose mother is Norwegian, found a stunning tray from the 1960s covered in a vivid Scandinavian print in Retro next door.
When our weekend in Newcastle had first been thought of a few new and 'different' establishments were appearing around town and I took it upon myself to book us all in for a new 'experience': the Garra Rufa Fish Pedicure (Footlove Spa, Arch 3, Forth Street Arches, Newcastle Upon Tyne NE1 3PJ; 0191 232 8076; www.footlovespa.com). At just £15 for a 30 minute treatment the spa offers great value. Mel shrieked as she lowered her toes into the fish infested waters, "Nooo! I can't believe I've paid for this! It's hideous!" while Lauren came over all dreamy eyed and lowered her hands into the tank to join her feet and Jill and Karin and I just giggled hysterically. The pedicure works. On two levels; our feet felt softer, smoother and lighter and we left the salon in brilliant moods, ready for another injection of culture at the beautiful Grade II listed Tyneside Cinema (10 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 6QG; 0845 217 9909; www.tynesidecinema.co.uk) which is the last surviving Newsreel theatre still operating as a cinema full-time in the UK and, perhaps more importantly on this occasion, lets you watch your chosen film with a glass of wine.
Before the weekend away in Newcastle I downloaded an app called the 'NewcastleGatehead City Guide' and it proved to be invaluable, giving me the opening times of the cafés where we ate breakfast to the phone numbers I needed to book our tables for dinner. Newcastle is a small but compact city that has developed in the 20 years since I last lived there into a cosmopolitan, culturally exciting and dynamic place to spend a weekend.