Very soon, the Lloyd family are off to sunny Spain, y viva Espana, if not to chat to a matador but we do hope to eat patatas bravas by the score. To get ourselves in the holiday spirit, we visited some cool cabana which has recently opened in Bishop Auckland Market Place.

It is so new that it doesn’t even have its name on the outside of its very anonymous building, although it is beside the Spanish Gallery, which announces its presence in very large letters.

The tapas restaurant El Castillo is, of course, part of The Auckland Project which is taking over the town, and it aims to combine a taste of Spain with locally sourced ingredients, particularly from Auckland Castle’s walled gardens.

The Northern Echo: Inside El Castillo, which became very noisy when it filled up

Inside El Castillo, which became very noisy when it filled up

It is in what was once the Bishop Barrington School, which has been stylishly dressed out with tasteful tiles that might have come from the palace at Alhambra in Andalusia. In my notes when we arrived, I wrote that it was “bright, clean and echoey”. Then a table of six women moved in beside us. They weren’t raucous but with the place full, even hearing what the waitress was saying to us was difficult.

Many tapas restaurants have a menu as long as the queue at an airport check-in desk, but El Castillo’s is quite short. It offers four meat plates, four fish plates and six potato and vegetable dishes, which range in price from £6.50 to £9. For the four of us, we were advised to order between eight and ten plates, which meant we’d be paying about £15 each for a main course – these days, that’s about par for the main course in a good restaurant.

The beauty of tapas is that you able to sample a lot of different tastes. The drawback of tapas is that the plates arrive helter skelter from the kitchen and you are soon trying to work out ways to stack all the plates amid all the chaos of glasses, jugs and crockery.

Ordering brought back memories of our last Spanish holiday, pre-pandemic. The Spanish love their croquettes in a way that has never caught on in Britain, and the word “albondigas” is always a puzzle: how can it mean “meatball”?

The Northern Echo: The croquetas, with a faulous creamy, bechamel filling and just a hint of ham

We ordered all four of the meat dishes, and the first to arrive was, I thought, the best dish of the day: the cured ham croquetas (£7.25) (above). Crispy on the outside but packed full of beautifully creamy bechamel in the middle and with just a hint of ham.

The Northern Echo: Albondigas, which translate from Spanish as meatballs

The three albondigas (£7.50) (above) were good, sturdy affairs, and I liked the typically Spanish, gentle red pepper and Manchego cheese sauce they came in. However, Theo, our son, was far more used to meatballs in a massively rich Italian tomato and garlic sauce and couldn’t cope with the Spanish subtlety.

The Northern Echo: The chorizo was served in a cidery dressing with sourdough for dipping

Genevieve, our daughter, enjoyed the chorizo a la sidra (£7.50) (above), with great chunks of rich sausage floating in a dippable sauce, and I took a long time contemplating the crispy chicken wings (£7) (below). The meat inside was gleaming white and moist, and the sauce on the outside was pleasantly warming, but I concluded that rather than being crispy they were a bit kizzened.

The Northern Echo: Crispy chicken wings, but were they a little overcooked?

The Northern Echo: Broccoli a la Catalana: broccoli sprinkled with pine nuts and raisins

From the fish section of the menu, we ordered grilled sardines (£7.50) (above). We got four of them floating on a bed of lentils. They were nicely cooked and had that sudden sharpness of fishiness.

The Northern Echo: Patatas bravas a la Bishop Auckland

We were all looking forward to the patatas bravas (£6.50) (above), reminiscing how on our last holiday they had been smothered in such a lurid pink sauce that they looked like a strawberry blancmange. The Bishop Auckland patatas – deep fried potatoes – were more restrained in colour and taste, but still Theo ate them by the handful.

The Northern Echo: Berenjenas: aubergine in light batter and a honey dressing

Petra, my wife, nominated the Berenjenas (£6.50) (above) as her favourite of the evening. This was finger-sized pieces of aubergine deep fried in an incredibly light batter and served with a muscovado honey dressing. I thought it a little too sweet, and preferred the Broccoli a la Catalana (£6.75) (below), which was griddled tenderstem sprinkled with raisins and pine nuts with just a hint of chilli heat. It was an imaginative combination that I thought worked really well.

The Northern Echo:

The Northern Echo: Broccoli a la Catalana: broccoli sprinkled with pine nuts and raisins

In truth, tapas is not Theo’s ideal food. He’s more of a Sunday roast with three Yorkshires sort of a chap, happiest with a big bowl of chips accompanied by a side order of chips. For him, there was too much pfaffing about, a bit of this, a bit of that, and too many sticky fingers – we really could have done with a fingerbowl.

The rest of us loved the variety, each having a different favourite, and if one dish wasn’t quite to our liking, we could move on to the next. Eight dishes between four left us comfortably full – perhaps we could have accommodated a time-honoured tortilla as well – with enough room for a dessert.

There were five possibilities on the menu, from which Theo chose the poached peaches (£5.50) (above). It was, for him, the best part of the meal, great juicy lumps of soft fruit with a Seville orange ice cream which I thought was exquisite – not at all citrussy so it worked well with the peach.

The Northern Echo: Catalan Creme dessert, with two very large orange shortbreads

I had Catalan Crème (£5.50) (above), a custard with a hard glazed top. I wondered whether it might have a waft of vanilla or cinnamon in it, but I didn’t detect any. Instead, it came with two remarkably large orange shortbreads which gave the custard all the fruity flavour it needed.

We drank only a chilled jug of tapwater, so our bill for four came to £79.25, which was very reasonable for high quality food, imaginative cooking and classy presentation. It revived memories of past Iberian holidays and raised the expectations, and excitement, for the one to come.

As well left, dusk was gathering in the wide spaces of Bishop’s pleasant Market Place, which is fringed with some fabulous buildings that are slowly coming back to life.

But from a gunmetal grey sky fell a little light drizzle – we might have had a taste of Spain but we were still experiencing an English summer.

The Northern Echo: El Castillo, Bishop Auckland

The Northern Echo: El Castillo in Bishop Auckland Market Place is in the old Bishop Barrington School beside the Spanish Gallery, but it doesn't have its name over its door

El Castillo in Bishop Auckland Market Place is in the old Bishop Barrington School beside the Spanish Gallery, but it doesn't have its name over its door


El Castillo,
Market Place,
Bishop Auckland DL14 7JF
Tel: 01388 600530
Web: From there, we were directed to book through, a very easy experience


Food quality: 8
Service: 7
Surroundings: 7
Value for money: 8