Mark Tallentire enjoys a child-free meal at The Spotted Dog country pub, in High Coniscliffe

NIGHTS away, when you have young children, are an incredibly precious thing.

We had my parents, and Tesco Clubcard, to thank that we were able to enjoy not only a splendid meal at The Spotted Dog, but then sleep it off at a nearby hotel. A most enjoyable 26 hours child-free – much of it spent asleep.

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I had visited The Spotted Dog once before – more than a decade ago, for the purposes of another publication that shall remain nameless. Though I remembered little of the visit beyond a sky-high ice cream-based dessert special, I retained a fondness for the prominent venue, which sticks out on a corner of The Green in High Coniscliffe, forcing the A67 to swerve south around its frontage.

From the outside, it’s not much too look at – having the appearance of a rural pub in need of some TLC. But inside it’s a different story.

The split-level dining room is pleasingly spacious – I dislike restaurants where one feels unable to have private conversations due to the proximity of the next party. Mid-reds go cheek by jowl with rich creams, creating a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. The current trend for exposed floorboards is observed though not, thankfully, that for endless, monotonous slate grey.

Though we were among the first to be seated for dinner that Friday night as we arrived, temporarily unshackled from children’s bath time, at the earlier-than-usual time of 7pm, a fair number of tables filled up around us as the evening progressed.

The Spotted Dog’s menu is pub grub classics: steaks, cod and chips, sausage and mash, burger, spag’ bol’, chicken breast, etc, with few added extras: a Thai green curry and a fish bake, for example.

Keen not to over-indulge, Sarah and I chose to share a starter: Potato Skins (£2.95), which came with pots of sweet chilli sauce and garlic mayonnaise. But when we saw it, our intentions were defeated: the bowl was huge. And when we tasted, well, that sealed the deal. The skins were superb: thin and crispy, and not at all oily. It was an excellent start.

For main course, Sarah chose the braised steak, Black Sheep ale and mushroom pie (£8.95), and she was very satisfied. The meat was cooked to melt-in-your-mouth stage, the gravy was thick and rich and the double cream mash was superb.

I chose the aforementioned Fish Bake (£9.95) – cod, salmon, smoked haddock and prawns in wine and cream veloute, topped with mashed potato and Cheddar cheese and served with fresh vegetables. Again, it was excellent – a mouth-watering mix of fish, wonderfully supported by the creamy mashed potato.

At that, Sarah was done. But I soldiered on, solely for your benefit, you understand, to try the Sticky Toffee Pudding (£4.95), which comes with warm caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. Regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of this classic dessert, and so it’s got to be done absolutely right: light, moist, piping hot and with plenty of rich sauce. The Spotted Dog’s incarnation was all that and more – a real triumph.

The rest of the dessert menu is as one would expect – sponges, fudge cake, cheesecake, ice cream and so on. No surprises there, but I’d bet they’re done well. My only disappointment: The Spotted Dog does not offer a Spotted Dick special. They’ve missed a trick there.

There is a respectable wine list, with almost all options being available by the glass, and, pleasingly, 125ml glasses on offer as well as 175ml and 250ml.

For those visiting at other times in the week, Sunday Lunch starts at noon and there are sandwich and light bite menus, along with daily and vegetarian specials on the boards. For families, children’s portions for the under-12s are available, priced £4.95.

The service was warm and friendly, rather than polished; the background music instantly forgettable; and the dining area flows quite naturally into the lounge bar, where, so I heard from one enthusiastic visitor, there is an excellent log fire.

The Spotted Dog has much about it to be commended, perhaps most notably the value of the food on offer: most of the main courses are under a tenner and our total bill reached just £41.10. I would happily have paid more. And I would happily return.

FOOD FACTS

The Spotted Dog Country Pub, 6 The Green, High Coniscliffe, Darlington, DL2 2LJ

Web: www.spotteddogcountrypub.co.uk

Tel: 01325 374351

Food served: Monday to Saturday, noon to 9pm; Sundays, noon to 8pm

Ratings:

Value: 4/5

Service: 3/5

Surroundings: 3/5

Quality: 4/5