Moving to another country is certainly a daunting experience, and hundreds of students take that step in Durham every year. My place of origin is Malta, a tiny European island-state in the centre of the Mediterranean. I come from a land of juicy Mediterranean food, with tonnes of fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood on tap and where rabbit stew is a regular feature during gatherings and every day meals. Life in Malta is rather laid back, the blistering heat reigns supreme for most of seven sunny months throughout the year, and cafeterias and ice-cream shacks are open till late every night.
Consequently, despite the fact that sampling foreign restaurants and cafés has always appealed to me, I was definitely a little apprehensive about settling into a completely new town (and lifestyle) and having to accept new eateries into my life. After bidding farewell to my favourite haunts in my home country, I was eager to evaluate what Durham had to offer. Here is a selection of my personal best and worst Durham food spots:
Cakes are what I’m all about. Luckily, Durham has countless little cafés where I can indulge my regular cravings for a nice piece of cake. Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Café Nero are your regular, mostly over-priced and over-hyped coffee shop chains. Nothing special to report about these, although I did hear that Starbucks has been a very recent addition to the Durham coffee shop scene. It seems to be doing very well, though, and its décor is very studious, with bookshelves and different nooks where you can sit alone or with a friend or two. I’m not the biggest fan of these places, although I sometimes allow myself a rare indulgence and grab a fancy-sounding beverage from one of these chains.
My independent coffee shop standouts, however, are definitely Flat White and Leonard’s. Flat White’s beverages and food are top-notch and delicious (try their brie and cranberry sandwich), but its service can be a little patchy. Leonard’s is probably one of my most favourite places of all time. Its hot chocolates are positively atmospheric, the place itself is incredibly cosy and welcoming, and its cakes and treats are out-of-this-world. I highly recommend the Elderflower cake – I’ve had it almost every time I’ve been there.
A final comment must be made about newcomer Be Tempted, a garishly pink café on Saddler Street which opened a few weeks ago and has quickly become my top place for cupcakes in Durham. Please try the chocolate orange cupcake – it is absolute heaven (I think the secret is in the mascarpone cheese frosting and the added chocolate orange slice on top).
Even though I’m an international student on a budget, I do enjoy a fancy evening meal at a restaurant every so often. I certainly haven’t been to every single one in Durham, but there have been a few which have been rather memorable.
La Spaghettata is definitely a favourite. It might be because I’m a Mediterranean girl myself, and because I love pasta, juicy pizzas and house wine (all of which are plentiful at Spags), but it’s also because this place is overdosing on charm, good food, and fantastic affordability. Even when I simply opt for a starter portion of their pasta dishes, it fills me up (and I often have this accompanied with a sizeable glass of wine, and some of their pizza-shaped garlic bread). Their desserts have never failed to impress, and I once sampled some form of honeycomb/white chocolate cheesecake creation which has left me baffled about its deliciousness till this very day.
Two other Italian restaurants which have impressed me are Capriccio and Michelangelo’s. Capriccio’s pizzas are on the gooey side, which most people would shun, but for me they are absolutely perfect. I might be a little biased about Michelangelo’s (at Neville’s Cross) since I used to live approximately three doors down from it, but its happy hour offers are seriously not to be missed. The owner is an Italian man who is adorable and hilarious, and has taken to greet me with a shout of “signorina bellissima!” every time I pop into his restaurant.
On the Oriental side of things, Zen lunches are fantastic and well-priced for students: I always take another meal’s worth of leftovers home, and it’s an all-round lovely experience (they even have amazingly soothing hand lotion in the bathrooms!). The Spice Lounge near Claypath is quite expensive for student budgets, but the food is faultless. Finally, Rajpooth on Claypath has a pretty splendid 5-course special for £9.95, leaving you gasping for air (it’s a lot of food), and it’s all very delicious.
Most of my meals out at restaurants in Durham have been pleasant and delectable, however, there have been a few unexciting experiences. Durham has quite a few restaurant chains, which I had never tried before moving here. I expected their food to be cheap, quick, and tasty. Alas, I’ve come to realise that I can’t have all three of those, because a chain’s food will either be cheap, quick and not so delicious, or else relatively cheap and tasty (but will take absolute ages to arrive at your table). The former situation is often the case at a Wetherspoon’s (apart from their maple syrup pancakes, which are ridiculously cheap and to-die-for). The latter predicament is always the case at the Slug and Lettuce, in its overly-large restaurant where servers seem to disappear for minutes on end, and a two course meal drags on for at least two hours because of the utterly slow service.
Even though I have waxed lyrical about certain Mediterranean dishes available in Durham, the vast majority of them are subpar at best. I have yet to taste a good pizza from a takeaway, and I have tried about six or seven different ones. A thick lump of dough smeared with cold tomato sauce and cheese (which is not mozzarella) is not good pizza. Likewise, pizzas from English restaurants are often unexciting, and other Mediterranean food, such as pasta and bruschetta, is usually also average. I should probably stick to sausages and mash or a hearty pie, because that is what English pubs and restaurants are best at.
Thankfully, my experience with such traditional English fare has been delicious. Whether it was at pubs or restaurants like Oldfields, or whether it was a Northumbrian pan haggerty at a fellow student’s house; I’ve been very pleased to discover the tasty offerings of my new home. My oddest experience was with scotch eggs, which I first tasted from Tesco’s (cold and disgusting), and then had them at a pub called The Broad Chare in Newcastle (hot, perfectly runny, and divine).
As you can tell, my foodie experiences in Durham have been overwhelmingly positive, with the highlight of everything being the Durham Food Festival last autumn, which ensured my undying love and devotion towards food and drink from this wonderful region.
Even though I still ache for proper fresh produce and pizza from the Mediterranean, I shall simply have to accept that we are, in fact, not in the Mediterranean, but in the glorious English city of Durham, where enough good food is available to sate my ever-hungry appetite.