ROADSIDE cafes were once seen as the highlight of staycations and long-haul drives within the UK. Rest breaks and refuelling stops were conveniently planned based on the nearest Little Chef café – a historic British institution which sadly became defunct in 2018.  

The popular chain formerly occupied the premises just off the A66 at Sadberge before it closed and became the Bengali restaurant Akbar Dynasty. Yet that closed in 2021 after licensing disputes and poor hygiene ratings, and now the building has been transformed into Tulip, which still benefits from the well-known roadside location.   

After turning off the A66 and parking up alongside the Esso petrol station, I was greeted with warmth by the staff who quickly took me to my table and gave me one of their huge menus. Little Chef cafes were known for their huge 2Olympic Breakfasts” and this menu and the wealth of dishes on offer is Olympic sized.  

I ordered two poppadums (70p each) and a pickle tray (£3.50) to nibble at while I took a longer look at the menu. A glass bottle of Diet Coke, complete with paper straw, also arrived at my table.  

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The Northern Echo:

Poppadum and pickles, to me, seem like the perfect litmus test of the quality of a South Asian restaurant’s food and experience early on. Mango chutney, a mint raita, sweet diced tomatoes and a spicy green chilli condiment sung with flavour and all complimented each other perfectly. A solid start.  

On the menu, the meat, vegetable and seafood starter sections are bigger than some menus alone, and it’s clear that Tulip’s menu is out to please everyone. But so much choice, however, can make it difficult to make a decisive decision. After minutes of deliberation, I opted for the mixed kebab – chicken and meat seekh kebab with an onion bhaji (£4.75).  

The kebabs arrived fresh off the grill and were full of flavour with the subtle heat of chilli throughout. The bhaji was crisp and carried a zing thanks to a light squeeze of lemon provided in the side salad.  

The Northern Echo:

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Judging by the size of Tulip’s menu, it’s clear staff don’t want customers to leave without feeling they haven’t eaten enough. For main dishes, there are 10 different styles of curries and grill dishes to choose from. ‘Old School’ curries and Biriyanis provide the usual fare you’d expect from similar restaurants but there are also lesser-spotted intriguing dishes throughout. There’s a Tulip Special Balti and and a selection of Punjabi traditional dishes. But in the bottom corner of the menu I spotted a Hashnaji (£10.50), which promised green chilli, bullet chilli, a mixture of peppers, onion, keema, garlic, ginger, and spinach. “This astonishing dish is like what you would eat at an Indian family home as a guest,” said the menu. It was enough to intrigue, so I opted for the lamb version.  

A mushroom pilau (£3.45), garlic and coriander naan (£2.70) and Bengan (£5.25) – an aubergine side dish – were also ordered.

Grill special dishes were ordered by nearby tables and came out of the kitchen on sizzling hot plates, while a Family Naan (£4.95) was almost the size of two human heads. 

My garlic and coriander naan wasn’t too much smaller, and flopped over the sides of the plate, piping hot and sweating with garlic. It was a moreish combination of chew and crisp. The mushroom pilau was OK, with the mushrooms perhaps slightly overdone, and the aubergines arrived immersed in a tomato-based sauce but lacked oomph. They could have done with a touch more heat.  

But the Hashnaji certainly lived up to its explanation. The mix of peppers and the “neatly spiced” chilli provided a perfect flavour balance.

The Northern Echo:

The restaurant was slowly filling up by this point and party-sized tables were taking over the room.  

I was suitably stuffed, and although there are no dessert options on the menu, I wouldn’t have been able to fit anything else in.  


Stockton Rd, Sadberge, Darlington DL2 1SZ 

01325 337337 


Food quality: 7 

Ambience: 8 

Service: 9 

Value for money: 7 

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