RISHI’S half-price dishes seemed to have an immediate effect on the restaurants in Darlington’s Imperial Quarter on the scheme’s first Monday lunchtime of operation. Many establishments looked to be three-quarters full, or more.

Outdoor tables were especially popular – even though a typically English August summer’s day had a lively breeze tugging at the menus and forcing diners to keep on a second layer of clothing.

Given that everybody has to eat and nearly everybody pays taxes, this is an extraordinarily good deal. The Government is paying half the price of food and soft drinks, up to a maximum of £10 per person, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August.

Three of us dined at Hash in Grange Road. We had two burgers (£11 each) and a sandwich (£7), plus a bottle of fruit juice each (£2.50). Total bill should have been £36.50, but we paid just £18.25.

Not only was it excellent value for money, but when the on-screen bill showed all the prices slashed by 50 per cent, there was an additional thrill in the thought that the Government was picking up the bill. It is as if Boris Johnson is now compensating us with food for taking away our liberty for three months and failing to provide enough PPE for healthworkers.

More than 70,000 outlets in the country have signed up to Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme. The Echo’s website and social media feeds have lists of local participatory places, as does gov.uk, the Government’s own site, where you can search for restaurants within a five mile radius of your postcode. It reveals that radiating from Richmond centre, there are 42 participants; from Darlington, 68; Bishop Auckland, 57, and Durham 100.

Most customers in Hash were aware of the scheme, as they checked to see it was available before taking their seats.

Only one lady, who must have come from a different planet, had never heard of it, and she took a step backwards in delight when she saw how low her bill was.

We chose Hash for the first lunchtime of the scheme as it seemed in keeping with the spirit of Rishi’s dishes: although big chains like McDonalds have signed up, it is designed to keep local businesses and local people at work in our high streets.

This week was the first time that Hash has opened on a Monday lunchtime since the lockdown began so the scheme has at least created extra shifts for the very pleasant young women doing the working.

The restaurant is currently protected by giant red-and-white crash barriers which the council must think will keep the virus at bay.

Disappointingly, it wasn’t serving food on its excellent, flower-lined roof terrace – this will come, though, as will tables and chairs on the pavement outside (from 6pm on Thursday, Grange Road is to be temporarily pedestrianised with all the pubs and bars able to operate outdoors with a carnival atmosphere).

The bright, high-ceilinged interior of Hash, with a fresh breeze blowing through the open doors felt nicely open and uncontaminated. Tables were widely separated, although when a baby turned up in its pushchair and wanted a high chair, a bit of a pinchpoint developed as the restaurant quickly filled up.

We left our names and contact numbers by the hand sanitiser at the counter, should we need to be traced, and we fumbled awkwardly with our masks. No one knows whether they need to be worn: some people entered with them stapled proudly across their cheeks; others were self-consciously holding them to their nose uncertainly; a few had them dangling pointlessly around their chins while most people had them forlornly dangling from their fingers, not knowing if they were meant to be on or off or not.

The staff didn’t wear them – I think I’d prefer it if they did, particularly when delivering food, although visors seem to me (and I am not an expert virologist) to make things worse by forcing any airborne droplets down onto the plate that is being carried beneath them.

The paper menu had been handed round many tables by the time it reached us – some places are printing out single use menus, much to the dismay of one publican who has complained to me that printer ink is three times more expensive than champagne.

Now, after the pandemic preamble, at last – finally – to the food.

Hash’s lunchtime menu is limited: four sandwiches and three burgers. However, it is not plain.

There are several imaginative vegetarian options: a goats cheese and roast tomato and red pepper sandwich, for instance, or a halloumi and chargrilled peppers and aubergine burger.

Genevieve’s chorizo and mozzarella sandwich, served in a chunky ciabatta, was lined with a spicy mayonnaise and a sprinkling of rocket and tomato. It came with a fresh green salad that was enlivened by onion and roasted tomato and a vinaigrette dressing, and it was accompanied by a paper pot of a good salsa.

Theo and I had the smokey burger: two beef patties with smoked bacon and Monterey jack cheese, plus gherkins and a couple of slices of excellent, fragrant tomato. Each burger was served with a paper pot of mayo that had a satisfying hit of heat to it, and a large portion of crisp, clean thincut chips.

It is impossible to eat such a steepling burger elegantly. Human jaws do not dislocate to allow it to be tackled in a single bite; the bun becomes structurally unsound as the juices and the mayo seep into it, and you really can’t cut into the stack with a knife and fork as the tower will tumble over.

So we dismantled it with our fingers, and had a burger of two open halves. But the whole was a very interesting and filling combination of tastes, good value with the chips for a full price of £11, even if we did end up with very greasy fingers.

Because of the cheapness of the food, had Hash been doing desserts, I would have been tempted by a bargain baklava of some such – such is the confusion of Government messages that you are being paid to over-eat while at the same time expected to launch yourself into the anti-obesity campaign.

Fortunately, Hash saved me from myself.

Eat Out to Help Out is such a good deal that you would be foolish not to make use of it – after all, you will be paying for it in the long run. It may end up distorting people’s waistlines as much as it distorts the marketplace by enticing weekend bookings to the start of the week.

But on a mid-temperature Monday in Darlington, Sunak’s summery largesse seemed to have got people eating.

Hash Bar and Kitchen,

14, Coniscliffe Road, Darlington DL3 7RG

Phone: 01325-365585

Website: hashbarandkitchen.co.uk

Food quality 7

Service 7

Surroundings 7

Social distancing 7

Value for money 100