SEVEN O’CLOCK on a Saturday evening just before Christmas. Darlington town centre is empty. Most of the pubs are dark. There are no drinkers, no revellers, no festivities.

There is peace on earth this year but only because the Government has locked everyone down.

The void of the market place is deserted except for a flight of ducks, ten or 12 of them, which pass noiselessly overhead, the undersides of their bellies momentarily caught by the Christmas lights which still sparkle and twinkle on the Tier 3 town.

But they are seen only by the handful of homeless people at a hot food stand in Tubwell Row.

A light burns in the Hole in the Wall pub. Perhaps there’s room at the inn. As we approach, its large door opens slightly, but we are not welcomed inside. Instead, we are told to wait in our car for our order to be delivered through the window.

Earlier this month, in a virtual meeting with the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Anneliese Dodds, landlord Dave Johnson told of the difficulties facing hospitality businesses like his. “I am staring down the barrel of Christmas is cancelled, full-on Grinch,” he said. “But I’m going to go down fighting, whatever the situation is.”

Since November, the Hole in the Wall has developed a takeaway and delivery service, taking orders through Facebook Messenger for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Many of the items on the menu have a Thai tinge to them, reminding us of the distant days when the Hole pioneered Thai food with a female chef called Oi.

The Saturday night menu was limited: six craft burgers at £12 each and three Festive Sharing Boards, designed for two, at £26 per board. For vegetarians, the choice was poor: just one burger, the Bangkok Bad Boy, a spiced bean burger with satay sauce, which Petra, my wife, ordered.

For meat eaters, the choice was fantastic. Each board contained eight strikingly imaginative dishes. The Hen House board was chicken themed, the Thai board featured curries, spring rolls, burritos and fish cakes, but Theo and I opted for the Butchers Board which was pork based in a duckish sort of a way.

Most takeaways we've tried from pubs over the course of the pandemic have been valiant efforts, but are usually things like parmos spatula’d into a pizza box with a few chips shuffled around the side and a sprinkling of salad on top.

The Hole’s board was beautifully presented in a 12-inch box, the dishes artfully arranged like a spatial awareness puzzle.

But this was not a simple takeaway. Flavours abounded. It was a banquet in a box.

There were pigs in blankets and minced turkey balls. There were “pork with blue cheese and caramelised onion sliders”, which turned out to be mini pork burgers with a real waft of blue cheese and a splodge of sweetness from the chutney of them.

The gammon was said to have been “peach and bourbon glazed”. It was certainly stickily sweet and stringy with a great depth of rich flavour.

The shredded duck in orange consisted of beautifully cooked chunks of meat in a fruity sauce that was not too sweet.

Then we had a couple of explosively juicy bratwurst which were covered in a lap-it-up currywurst sauce.

Not forgetting a couple of cauli-cheese croquettes. They were a little on the sloppy side, but they had been carefully cooked because the delicate taste of cauliflower shone through.

It was a joy to sit on the sofa and have the tastebuds assailed by such an eclectic collection of flavours.

It wasn’t, though, perfectly balanced. There was a little pot of garlic mayonnaise, which was a welcome livener for the turkey balls, but there was also a polystyrene vat of “proper chicken gravy” which was nice, but completely superfluous – I just couldn’t see what it was meant to accompany.

Apart from a couple of sprigs of greenery, the cauliflower in the croquette was the only vegetable – although looking once again at the menu, we were due to get a dish of “sauteed baby pots and creamy sprouts with pancetta” of which there was no sign. Perhaps there was no room in the box.

The potatoes as well as the veg would have been welcomed, although we had ordered an extra box of Filthy Chips (£6), which had their skins left on and were smothered in light cheese and gravy with a handful of eye-watering pickled onions lobbed in on top.

Petra thoroughly enjoyed her veggie burger, which was moist but still crunchy on the outside. It had a little heat running through the spice and a touch of peanut from the satay. It was accompanied by mayo and good skin-on chips, only without a filthy coating.

For me, this seal of approval was perhaps the best news of the evening because I am genuinely excited by the thought of returning to the Hole to see what melees of flavours are to be found on the other boards.


Hole in the Wall, Horse Market, Darlington DL1 5PT

Phone: 01325 466720

Facebook: Hole in the Wall Market Tavern & Kitchen

Ratings: Covid security 9; Food quality 8; Value for money 8.