Chris Lloyd discovers the family-friendly side of dining at The Chinese Buffet, Feethams, Darlington

IF you are looking for an intimate, quiet, relaxing, child-free meal that is especially crafted for you, the new Chinese buffet beneath Darlington’s new Vue cinema is not the venue.

It is loud and cavernous, brash and bright. It is a fairground of food, young kids finishing their meals with a stick of freshly turned candyfloss while their nans make a naughty face as they tuck into a whippy ice cream in a cone with smarties sprinkled on top.

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There must have been 200 people in there at 6.30pm last Friday night – nobody knew how many for sure, but they were full with 125 reservations and still lots of room for walk-ups. Three of the diners were celebrating birthdays and cakes topped with sparklers as big as the Wilton flare were delivered to their tables while a chorus of Happy Birthday blasted from the speakers. And all 200 of them were forever on the move, pulling out chairs, scraping legs, balancing plates and pushing by – all of them, that is, except the cloud of smokers and vapers who hung outside the door for a puff between courses.

Despite not having a booking, we were immediately led through the pandemonium to a round table that had a slightly tacky top and an irritatingly wobbly leg. A black-clad army of waiters and waitresses linked by lapel microphones and earpieces sped about the place, clearing tables and bringing drinks. They were, without exception, attentive, friendly and concerned about our welfare – even if none of them managed to bring us a jug of water whereas every paid-for drink turned up promptly.

Our introductory waitress explained that you have your table for 90 minutes during which you can make as many journeys as you like to the buffet. On your marks, get set… Eat!

And what a buffet. Ribs, pancakes, crackers, soup, sushi, prawn cocktail, nuggets, satay, sweet and sauce, samosas, toasts, plus several different beef, pork and prawn main dishes and countless chicken ones, plus an array of rices and noodles. And four or five vegetable dishes. Plus the sauces. Plus the huge salad bar. Oh, and there was a specials chef knocking out random delicacies as the mood took him – he produced mussels one moment and an extremely good Cantonese barbecue chicken the next... and chips.

Not all of it worked. The prawn crackers were overdone. The salt and pepper ribs were too dry. The aromatic duck was more crinkly than crispy. And the table really did wobble.

Young Theo loved the curry, particularly when he discovered the separate vat of curry sauce which he could pour on his chips. I thought the beef in black bean and the chicken in oyster (I think) were quite superb, and Petra thought the salmon was perfectly cooked. Plus, I heard people walking around enthusing about the stir fried garlic mushrooms, and the huge, fresh pile of stir fried green beans was good enough to dive into.

At peak time, when food was disappearing like magic onto dozens of plates, everything was steamingly fresh – there wasn’t time for it to sit wilting under heat-lamps.

An all-you-can-eat buffet puts gluttony at the top of the menu, and I stuffed myself with a third and a fourth walk round to hoover up any interesting tastes I might have missed – I stumbled across an apple fritter next to the pork dumplings on my last sortie, which was rather nice.

Chinese desserts are notoriously poor, but here there is the Mr Whippy ice cream machine, there’s a range of Mr Kipling-style tarts and pies, plus a chilled cabinet full of jelly and blancmange squares, each with a blackberry on top. These squares were very pleasant, particularly the chocolate blancmangey. There was also a waffle-making counter and, with a gaggle of young people standing around staring in awe, a 2ft chocolate fountain. Theo skewered some marshmallows, twisted and turned them in the fountain so they were completely covered, grabbed a handful of M&Ms from somewhere and ran back to his seat for a gooey, chocolatey feast.

I’m not sure they dine on such delicacies in the back streets of Szechuan, but they certainly do in Halifax, Huddersfield and Wigan which are among the 11 northern towns where The Chinese Buffet has an outlet. Also on the list is Blackpool which is appropriate because this is an end-of-the-pier culinary experience: fun and flash, fairly cheap and very cheerful.

A lunch buffet starts at £8.50, with reduced prices for children up to ten. The Grand Buffet on a Monday to Thursday evening is £13.99 for adults, but £6.50 for three to six year olds and £7.50 for seven to ten year olds. On a Friday and Saturday it is £14.99, with similar reductions for children, and an all-day Sunday buffet is £12.99.

Our bill for three came to £72.07, of which £44.97 was food. Theo and I each tried a £3.50 “mocktail”, a combination of exotic fruit juices which any child would love as a birthday treat, while Petra stuck to the red wine – £6.30 for a 250ml glass. At these prices, you can understand why the jug of water didn’t materialise. So horses for courses, which renders our ratings system rather redundant.

The Chinese Buffet, Feethams, Darlington

Website: thechinesebuffet.com (you can make reservations through the website, although it didn’t work when we tried)

Phone: 01325-488889

Ratings:

Quiet night for two: ambience 0/5, service 3/5, food quality 3/5, value for money 2/5

Family night out: ambience 4/5, service 4/5, food quality 4/5, value for money 4/5