ALL good things come to an end.

A phrase we all should remember from our childhood – the proverb used since time immemorial to remind children that however wonderful a time is it can’t last forever.

So it was with Eat Out to Help Out – the four week-long Government scheme to encourage us to escape the long tedium of lockdown with worth-having dining discounts to turbo-charge the hospitality sector.

Millions of us didn’t need a second invitation.

We didn’t quite match the family from the Midlands who reckoned they racked up £500-worth of free food over the course of the month, the man in London who ate five meals in one day for £31 – or the Scot who thought he could eat-in a discounted meal of fish and chips and order seven more to takeaway “to tide him over for a few days”. Apparently he wasn’t happy when told the takeaways didn’t qualify under the scheme.

But we gave it good go. In one week we ate out three days on the trot and were planning to do so on a fourth until we decided that was one meal out too far and decided to stay at home and eat beans on toast. Which was lovely.

But on the final night of the scheme, Monday, August 31, our last hurrah was at Imperial Express in Darlington – an old faithful.

It was our second early week visit of the month to the Italian café in the town’s Imperial Quarter as the triangle of streets at the western edge of the town centre likes to style itself these days.

Strictly speaking, it styles itself a “Continental Café” but of all the European nations it draws inspiration from Italy is the primary source of its food inspiration and its wines.

The Northern Echo:

The café sits at the epicentre of what is regarded as the poshest bit of Darlington’s rapidly changing retail sector and has been the spiritual home for those ladies who lunch after an exhausting session of retail therapy at the nearby boutiques.

For those who say that’s patronising, sexist nonsense I would say that it’s also awfully popular with lads who lunch. And just to be completely woke I’ll add that the LGBT+ community probably loves it too. “Woke”? “LGBT+”? Come on, get with the programme guys, look it up!

Whatever, it has always been a cut above the vast majority of Darlington’s myriad Italian dining options for as long as I can remember.

For one, it doesn’t sell pizza and not a huge amount of pasta but it always does an authentic risotto.

I should add that it does do a type of pizza – a Sicilian flatbread sometimes with garlic, sometimes with a tomato sauce – a sort-of trendy Margherita. Or it did before lockdown.

While there have been changes to a typical menu there’s still a decent range of dishes listed altogether rather than split into starters and mains. This is the Imperial Express café way which encourages diners to choose without the usual meal structure.

Should you wish to start your meal with an affogato followed by a steak and finish with a seafood salad that would absolutely fine. There might be a raised eyebrow perhaps but nothing more.

Presiding over it all is owner Tony Boughey who does a fine line in friendly, informal nonchalance. But if you think that suggests he’s not on top of things you would be misled. The predominantly young people who work with him know what they are doing and even at the busiest times service rarely falters.

The Northern Echo:

The food we ate on both our trips kept us very happy. Things like halloumi fries with a spicy sriracha mayo (£4.95) – all crispy on the outside and squeakily soft on the inside with a silky dip which packs a bit of a punch.

And a Caprese salad (£8.75) with top-notch mozzarella, sweet tomatoes, basil, olives and which, most importantly, didn’t skimp on the balsamic or the extra virgin.

There was also a rib-eye steak (£21.95) with a really sumptuous garlic and thyme butter, which Sylvia was sporting enough to share; the consensus was it was the juiciest piece of red meat any of us had come across in a very long time.

Plainly grilled seabass (£14.95) had a golden crispy skin which demanded to be eaten (why do people not eat fish skin? As with potatoes, it is so often the best bit), a classic hollandaise with baby new pots, green beans and perhaps too many baby corns.

A true Italian standard was Carne di Maiale (£14.95) – thin pork escalopes lightly fried and finished with a brandy and green peppercorn sauce. A recipe as old as the Tuscan hills but just yum.

I’d recommend the affogato too – starter, main course or dessert, you choose. They really know how to make it here with super-strength double espresso coffee and quality vanilla ice cream.

Farewell then to Eat Out to Help Out. Over the two visits, together with family, we saved £60 and it brought the buzz back to the Imperial. We’ll be back again and happy to pay our full whack.

Imperial Express

2 Northumberland Street, Darlington, DL3 7HJ

Tel: 01325-383297 facebook: @imperialexpresscafe

Open for food: 8.30-11.30am, noon-2.30pm, 5.30-8.30pm (last orders), Mon-Sat. Sunday brunch: 10am-1pm

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 9, Service 8 Surroundings 9 Value (during August) 10