THE lady has had another birthday, and we another wedding anniversary. It's 27 years now, nuptial not natal, and still usually on speaking terms. We dined to mark the glad occasion at the Fox and Hounds in Newfield, a former mining and brick making village half-hidden west of Bishop Auckland, where for almost 12 years Bill Thompson and Raymond Henry have been building a thoroughly deserved reputation for good food.

Ray fronts house, Bill cooks. Though both their names appear in the 2006 Good Pub Guide, Bill - a bit like 'Er Indoors or Captain Mainwairing's wife - seems never to be in evidence.

The Boss, who occasionally has one of her literary lunches over there - that is to say, she and her mate Wendy meet to blether about books - claims not once to have clapped eyes upon the poor chap.

We've a theory that they've built Ben, a Bill Thompson robot, programmed to knock up imaginative food at reasonable prices - and with a particularly strong vegetarian section - while the man himself sits upstairs watching Richard and Judy.

Marketed properly, the concept could make millions. A bit like Little Chef, only gastronomically huge.

It was Tuesday evening, All Saints Day. We went with the elder bairn and with Stacey, his amorosa, who sings with her dad in a band and is anxious for a mention. Lovely lass, she has a nose job at Sunderland Royal this morning: good luck, petal.

Described as restaurant and bar, the Fox is no longer really a pub. Otherwise enthusiastic, the GPG laments the absence of real ale.

The bairn, still not a cask ale convert but pretty much the real thing nonetheless, rightly bewailed the silly sign that promised "Free beer tomorrow".

The restaurant is cosy, still quite pubby, attentive to detail but pleasantly informal. We were the only customers; it gets busier at weekends.

We'd been a couple of times before, years ago, with the dear departed Voracious Vicar. Raymond remembered, still had the cuttings upstairs, recalled that we'd compared the French black pudding unfavourably with the full blooded stuff that might be bought across the river in Willington.

We tried it again, with well dressed salad and a delicious "orchard chutney". Willington would still get the vote.

We followed - main course, birthday surprise - with apple, apricot, chestnut, sunflower seed and honey bread and butter pudding and then, thoughtlessly, with an otherwise admirable apple and banana toffee crumble.

The maxim about an apple a day keeping the doctor away is, in any case, redundant. NHS Direct now performs that service instead.

The bread and butter pudding was lovely, vividly different and almost rejuvenating. Whether it was Bill or Ben, it was a great idea.

From a blackboard full of possibilities, other starters included saute bacon, sugar snap peas, pistachios and French cheese; goats' cheese, ricotta and sun blushed tomato parcels with nectarine pickle and baked camembert with lime, kumquat and fig marmalade.

The three other main courses chosen were supreme of corn fed chicken with mushroom and red wine sauce; roast squash, mushroom, tomato and sweet potato lasagne and halibut steak poached with white wine, leeks and herb butter. Interesting vegetables, too.

Nothing could be faulted: this is first rate bistro food in an English pub setting, so good we suggested that the chef might like to take a bow.

The pimpernel remained elusive, the leaden hint ignored. Clearly the chap can stand the heat; maybe it's time he got out of the kitchen.

l The Fox and Hounds, Newfield, near Bishop Auckland (01388) 662787. Open Tuesday-Saturday and Sunday lunchtime, including "light lunches". No smoking in the restaurant, no problem for the disabled. Three courses unlikely to exceed £20.

Christmas fayre, evenings from December 1, includes a vegetarian section with three options in each section - perhaps leek, lemon grass, coconut and banana couscous rissole with satay sauce followed by tagine of butternut squash, sweet potato, apricots and toasted almonds with lemon and garlic relish.

RUNNING homeward from the Fox, we looked for a late night pint of Amos Ale into the Crown at Manfield, across the Tees near Darlington and both Darlington and Yorkshire CAMRA's pub of the year.

Produced by the Wear Valley Brewery in Bishop Auckland, selling particularly well at the Daleside Arms in Croxdale, Amos will also loom large at Wear Valley CAMRA's beer festival - at the Masonic Hall in Kingsway, Bishop Auckland, from November 30-December 4.

Word arrives, however, that in keeping with a past times theme, the great beer will be rebranded Old Amos Ale and the handsome character on the pump clip fitted with a flatulent cap.

Organisers should note that Old Amos is a long running cartoon character in the Dalesman magazine. He is wise but occasionally grumpy, and thus bears no resemblance whatsoever.

OUTHOUSE brewer John Winterburn, from whose recipe Amos Ale is made, noted last week's paragraph about the phosphoric acid content of Coke. Many breweries, says John, wash their yeast in a dilute solution of phosphoric acid. Luckily for you, he adds, Cameron's isn't among them.

GENTLEMEN who lunch, that is to say the Pens and Lens Club for mellowed North-East journalists, met for their annual resume in the Magpie Room at St James Park, Newcastle.

Some have a view of the greensward, others face in the opposite direction. It is not for the column to suggest who is the more fortunate.

Table d'hote lunch with coffee and things was £24 - butternut squash soup with parsley oil, perhaps, followed by slow roasted pork belly, sage polenta, braised white cabbage and red wine juice and finished off with creme brulee with shortbread.

It was unequivocally good, the waiting team faultless. The following day the footballers ground out an apparently sterile 1-0 win over Birmingham City. Which way the crowd faced at 4.45pm can only be a matter for speculation.

AMONG the Pens and Lensmen was Colin Randall, once the Northern Echo's reporter in Stanley and now the Daily Telegraph's chef de bureau (as apparently they say across the water) in Paris. Colin insisted on dinner that evening - a one course affair, perforce - at Savino's in Shildon, opposite the workmen's club where his dad was once secretary.

The restaurant has now doubled in size by extending into the premises next door, previously an undertaker's and once Mrs Foskett's record shop in the days when life span at 78rpm.

The energetic Andrea Savino has been joined by his son Salvatore, who appears to have inherited the family savvy. It's as vibrant, and as excellent, as ever.

RECENTLY recommended hereabouts, included in the 2006 Good Beer Guide - "perfectly acceptable just to pop in for a pint" - the Old Yard Tapas Bar in Darlington celebrates its tenth birthday with an invitations-only party tonight.

...and finally, the bairns wondered if we knew the cure for water on the brain.

A tap on the head, of course.