FINGS Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be sang Max Bygraves in the good old 1960s, encapsulating in a phrase of strangulated Cockney a forlorn desire for turning back the clock to halcyon days seen through rose-tinted spectacles.

We are all guilty of it, particularly as we get older, and the sentiment applies as much to the hospitality business as any other.

We grow to love a particular pub or restaurant, a perennial favourite we keep going back to. Then suddenly it changes hands and it’s just not the same. The fact that it might actually be better is beside the point and forgotten amidst the scattered memories of wonderful meals and occasions that can’t be recreated.

When the celebrated Black Bull at Moulton re-opened a couple of years ago, it laboured under the reputation it built up under the Pagendums three decades previously. The new owners got no credit for spending a squillion quid on re-building a structure that was on the point of falling down, extending it and creating a delightful outside eating area where that infernal railway dining car used to be. No, it isn’t the same – and thank God for that.

The people responsible for the new version of the Black Bull – Provenance Inns – have now taken on another legendary establishment in the form of the Cleveland Tontine. Arguably, its past reputation is as potent as the Black Bull’s.

The ‘Tont’ will be forever associated in many people’s minds with the McCoy family and particularly Eugene McCoy. But he moved on a few years ago to plough an equally successful furrow a few miles up the A19 at the Crathorne Arms.

The Tompkins family poured a small fortune into the Tontine while retaining much of its character and also received precious little credit. “It’s not the same without Eugene there,” the naysayers would have it and of course they were right. It couldn’t be but it didn’t mean it was rubbish.

So now Provenance are going to have a crack at giving it fresh life and despite the McCoy legend casting a long shadow, it might have an easier task than the one it faced at the Black Bull.

For a start, all the major building work has been done by the Tompkins during which they also refreshed the interior so that it retained its bohemian, slightly decadent, fin de siècle air which made it so different when the McCoys first cast their spell over it 40 years ago.

I understand the new regime has no plans to make significant changes and Amen to that.

What has changed is the approach to pricing. The Tontine was known for fine (and costly) dining long before that phrase attained common usage. It was the place to push the boat out on special occasions.

On our lunchtime visit on Monday this week, the a la carte was available in all its extravagant splendour plus also a menu de jour (available until 7pm Monday to Friday) costing £16.95 for two courses and £20 for three.

Sylvia, the extravagant lady she is, went a la carte, modest little me gave the menu du jour a try and, to fair, although Sylvia’s meal was more than twice the price of mine we were equally satisfied.

So considering that Sylvia had scallops to start followed by lobster, that made my three courses outstanding value.

My Parma ham and honey roast fig starter was a memorable melange of textures and flavours. The slightly salty chewiness of the mild-cured ham and the sweet fleshiness of the figs was delightfully set off by the creamy and crunchy celeriac and apple remoulade.

The fillet of sea trout had nicely crisp skin and flaky-firm oily flesh. It came with some sea-salty wilted samphire, a classic brown shrimp and caper butter, all perched atop some super-smooth buttery mash.

I finished meal with affogato (espresso with vanilla ice cream) but I could have had Eton Mess or a simple cheese plate.

Sylvia’s baked Queen scallops (£8.95), served in shells, with a cheddar gruyere crust were all soft, sticky, garlicky morsels of fresh zingy ozone and her grilled lobster (£26.95) was a twist on the classic thermidor, the tail meat having been replaced with a mix of mussels, clams and shrimp and lobster in a garlic sauce. A seafood spectacular and it looked beautiful too.

She finished with a deconstructed strawberries and cream (£6.50) – a timbale of layered strawberry, mint and cream jelly accompanied by basil ice cream. She loved the timbale for its essence of strawberry but thought the strong basil flavour in the ice cream almost overpowering.

Service was super-attentive thanks to other customers being a bit thin on the ground – well it was Monday.

The bill was £81 and that included glasses of Prosecco, a superb New Zealand sauv blanc, an aperitif and some rather lovely freshly-baked bread (particularly the tomato and harissa variety).

It was a lovely lunch. Period. Long live the Tontine evolution.


The Cleveland Tontine, Staddlebridge, Northallerton DL6 3JB

Tel: 01609882671


Open: 8-11.30am (breakfast), noon-2.30pm, 5.30-9.30pm (Sunday 8.30pm)

Disabled access. Vegetarian and gluten-free options

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