Gavin Havery discovers a bistro where quirkiness is high on the menu

FED up of standardised chain restaurants, generic gastro pubs and samey takeaways?

Me too.

So when I heard, from more than one person, that Miss Nancy’s Bistro in Houghton-le-Spring was worth a try, my appetite was already whetted.

This independently run eatery opened on Newbottle Street, next to the Domino pizza place, two years ago and expanded next door with its Brasserie restaurant before Christmas.

After a recent visit one Saturday, I can confirm it is indeed full of charm, but not without its idiosyncrasies.

There is no website as such, but you can see what it is on the small, but perfectly formed, menu on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Upon entering, the first thing that I noticed was the green 1970s kids’ Chopper bike. Very cool. I always wanted one of those, I thought.

It’s full of interesting out-of-place features like that. A safe on a barrow, a piano in some bales of hay, or straw, and some stacked suitcases.

All a bit random, but full of personality.

We were greeted and shown to our table in the bar area, which is where I was told we would be when I booked a few weeks earlier. It can quite busy here by all accounts.

It was fine, but a little bit cold and drafty.

We were a bit disappointed to learn the amazing-sounding three courses for £25 menu advertised on the aforementioned Facebook page had only been available for Valentine’s Day.

I was a bit miffed too to find they had no rump steak. At 6pm on a Saturday. Don’t know what is going on there.

Lis, a vegetarian, who does eat fish, but not prawns, found she could not have the fish pie, because of the prawns and her options for a main meal were limited so kind of made hers up by throwing together a starter and two sides.

My own starter was the homemade chicken liver pate (£6.50) served with half a slice of toasted crusty bread with curly salad leaves and an attractive splodge of sweet chilli mayonnaise.

The pate was smooth and full of flavour, set off nicely by the gently spiced creamy accompaniment.

I thought they might have given me the other half of the bread as well though, as there were two big balls of pate. Still, not to worry.

For the main, I went for the chicken and mushroom gratin (£12.95) which came in a blue cheese and garlic sauce, topped with breadcrumbs.

I also ordered a side of haloumi fries (£3.50) which were cooked to perfection and utterly amazing but perhaps not the wisest of choices given the cheesiness of my main.

I had, to be, fair, completely underestimated just how cheesy it was. Very cheesy. Swimming in cheese.

A few tender chunks of chicken and bit of mushroom drowning in a bath of cheese.

Lush though.

Lis’s make-your-own meal consisted of the possibly the most attractively presented fishcakes (£6.95) I have ever seen, with swirls and what-not here and there.

Alas, she declared them a ‘bit bland’ with too much mash and not enough fish, always the risk with a fishcake.

She was also a bit surprised the bistro salad (£2.20) came without dressing and giant great chunks of red onion, which I love, but she had to fish out, leaving peppers and leaves.

Her triple cooked garlic chips (£2.60) however were a triumph and were a far better way to mop up my cheese sauce while she nicked a more than fair amount of my haloumi.

To finish, we shared a delicious creamy slab of lemon cheesecake, which could have been a bit more lemony, truth be told, served with a very mediocre blob of vanilla ice cream.

Staff throughout were an absolute delight and could not have done more to make us feel welcome.

The service was spot on and the team worked their socks off; they clearly make a real effort to make sure their customers are enjoying their food.

Two things about the place stand out in my mind as being indicative of the quirkiness of Miss Nancy’s.

The toilets are unisex so men and woman go into the same room, but separate cubicles when using the facilities.

Feels very wrong, and even though the sign on the door shows it is for both genders, this did not stop a woman shrieking at me when I opened the door.

The other thing was, as we left, we peeped though the window of the original dining room, which was closed on the evening we visited, and saw every table had the remnants of afternoon tea scattered across it.

Like they had been eating jam scones with clotted cream and strawberries on the Mary Celeste.

We struggled to figure out if they had really left the day time dishes to be cleared later, visibly for people passing by to see, or whether it was a Tracey Emin-style art installation.

See what I mean? Personality.


Miss Nancy’s Bistro

77 Newbottle Street




Opening hours: Mon to Sat 8.30am-10pm

Sun 11am-4pm

Food: 8/10

Service: 9/10

Value: 7/10

Surroundings: 7/10