QUITE often, opting for an "early bird" meal somewhere is making the most of special offers or fitting in a bite and a drink before heading home after work.

It is generally not seen as a dining experience.

Unless you go to the 3 Tuns at Osmotherley. There, an early evening meal has all the ingredients for something special. It is not cheap. But it is special.

And that is precisely what general manager Richard Ward intends.

Since he arrived at the 3 Tuns last year, he and unit manager Becci Gill have been going all-out to raise people's awareness of the quality of food and service available.

If our meal was anything to go by, they are succeeding.

I originally set out to sample an Early Bird offer of two courses for £10.95 or three courses for £13.95 - available from 5.30 to 7pm. But I discovered this offer had been scrapped a while ago in favour of a concept aimed at delivering customer choice.

Now, there is an early menu featuring a handful of starters, mains and desserts all individually priced.

"People can choose just what they want and if you work it out it does not cost much more than the original offer," said Mr Ward.

Wary of not being able to do justice to mains, we steered away from having starters. But the line-up included home-made soup at £3.95, mussels at £4.95 and a warm salad with black pudding at £4.

It being a beautiful summer evening, Osmotherley was very busy and so was the 3 Tuns. But we were told we could have a table until 8.30pm and that seemed fine.

Mr Ward says if you book, the table is yours for the evening.

On ordering, the waitress pointed out that our meals could take a while as everything is freshly cooked. She didn't want anyone thinking there was something wrong.

So we were able to sit with a glass of wine and a choice of bread was brought round.

The food was well worth the wait.

I chose Cajun chicken on tomato linguini and it was delicious. The lovely moist chicken was lightly spiced but enough to give the meal a kick.

My companion opted for chargrilled ribeye steak with beef tomato, field mushrooms and jumbo chips.

We have often found it hard to get good steaks even in esteemed restaurants but this did not disappoint. The meat was tender, juicy and full of flavour.

We shared a dish of mixed vegetables which were cooked to perfection.

Costing £9.95 and £12.95, both meals were substantial without being over-facing, leaving just enough room for dessert.

Here again the choice was mouth-watering - including poached pears, cheese and biscuits and speciality ice cream.

But we went for warm chocolate brownie with clotted cream and white Belgian chocolate sauce and a Greek baclava with citrus creme fraiche and berries.

Presentation was superb and content just as good. They were gorgeous.

My brownie cost £3.95 and the baclava £4.25 and other items were similarly priced.

We had a coffee to finish off and here it could have been better. Served in a large cup, it could have been warmer and would have been better served with cream instead of milk which made the drink a little weak.

But, again, it was well presented and included a dish of dark chocolate beans.

The total bill, with some drinks, was £42.50. Maybe a little steep for an early evening outing but certainly a meal to remember.

Obviously other people agree as quite a few diners turned up before the full a la carte menu took over.

The 3 Tuns is owned by the Yarm-based Steel River Group who, on acquiring the business, closed it for four months for a refit and then reopened with a whole new look.

Head chef is Simon Wilson who has introduced new menus and personally re-designed the food on offer.

A new a la carte menu was launched in March and Fridays and Saturdays are generally booked up.

Mr Ward said many people are making use of the Early Bird sessions - especially families.

"The food is freshly prepared. If we can make something we will, not just buy it in. But we make the customer aware of the time it could take to get their meals."