Once upon a time, before Google, and food blogs, and influencers, finding somewhere nice to eat was a lot simpler. You either went somewhere that someone had recommended to you, or took a lucky dip and picked somewhere at random – maybe because it was closest to where you happened to be, or perhaps because it had nice signage, or even just because it was the busiest place on the street.
Now we have so many resources to hand to find the ‘BEST’ place to go, it takes three times as long to research, plan, worry over, book, then worry some more about where you’ve booked than the time you’re likely to actually spend there.
Of course, I say this tongue in cheek because I’m happy to admit that for me half of the fun is said researching, planning and worrying, along with the joy of finding somewhere special when all that legwork has paid off. But there’s something rather lovely about going old-school and visiting a place based on the very simple act of it being recommended by a mate.
When we planned our trip to Northumberland I hadn’t done much food planning, which is rare for me, but decided to wing it to a certain extent. Which meant when a pal said that I absolutely should try the Joiners Arms we had plenty of freedom to go and do exactly that, and what a treat it was.
The Joiners Arms is a conglomeration of all the best things that some might say shouldn’t necessarily blend so effortlessly. It is, at its heart, a pub, serving decent (very decent, in fact) pub grub. Yet it somehow doubles as a rather swanky boutique hotel with a selection of 5* rooms that take it far beyond the average village pub you might be used to.
I wasn’t sure how somewhere that brings together two different feels – or ‘vibes’ as the kids might say these days – could work, but when Becs told me that they not only serve a mean fish and chips, but also do great Pornstar Martinis, I could see where the beauty would lie in somewhere that can feed me until I’m in a food coma whilst simultaneously allowing me to wave a martini glass around like one of the Ab Fab girls.
Much like your favourite local pub, the welcome at the Joiners Arms is warm. It’s a buzzing place, full of eager customers, busy staff and a lot of dogs with owners overjoyed at the fact that they don’t have to hide in the corner or apologise for their four-legged friend.
They describe their menu as “honest, home-style cooking with a Northumbrian twist” but I can’t help but think that over-simplifies things slightly. Yes, it’s home-style cooking, and yes it’s led by the stunning ingredients you can find all over Northumberland, from great meat to fresh fish and everything in between. But there’s more to it than that.
Someone in the kitchen clearly has a passion for Asian food, with gyozas putting in an appearance among the starters, and a kyoto noodle salad tucked away in the mains, while a Montego Bay jerked chicken kebab is something that pops out from the expected steak frites and North Sea beer battered cod, reminding you that no, you’re not just in any old boozer.
I can’t resist the gyoza, mainly to see if their addition is merited or just a gimmick. It’s definitely the former. I mean, I’m no gyoza expert but the delicate veg inside a perfectly steamed casing, with the addition of added texture courtesy of nori, sesame seeds and crispy spring onion and fresh chilli, hit the spot for this amateur.
For Jamie, an oven-baked camembert proved too difficult to resist, despite it being aimed at two people sharing. There’s no picture here because oozy cheese isn’t the most photogenic of things. The fact the rosemary it’s studded with is from their garden, and the bread baked locally is a nice touch but ultimately, I can’t recommend you make the five-hour journey from the Midlands purely for melted Camembert can I?
However, add that melted camembert to some simple, yet brilliantly executed mains, and we’re starting to get to why the Joiners Arms won us over. A kebab is something most of us relegate to the late-night, drunk, ‘guilty pleasure’ category, but here it sits proud as punch in the middle of the main courses and that alone is enough to make me order.
Tender, shredded chicken infused with all the warming spice that jerk should have. Warmth, spice, sweetness, all wrapped up in one mound of meat atop a crisp, fresh fruit slaw. It’s served on top of a flatbread that I tear chunks from, wrapping up chunks of chicken and smearing them with the garlic mayo and chilli and pineapple jam that come on the side.
Washing it down with a very nice red wine, I feel simultaneously decadent and yet at my most comfortable – and this is to be the beauty of the Joiners Arms.
Jamie, perhaps, predictably opts for steak. But it proves to be an excellent choice. There’s only one on the menu and it’s rump, something he’d never choose. But it appears that the Joiners Arms attention to beating out the 28-day aged steak is a winner and he declares it the most tender rump he’s ever sunk his teeth into. (If I was funnier and more risque than I am, at this stage I’d add ‘except mine’, but of course I’m not).
It’s served with the classic additons of truffle and parmesan fries, béarnaise sauce and watercress that is more ornament than accompaniment but adds an element of colour and balanced diet, even if that’s all.
By now we’re firmly into the swing of things, so trot straight on to dessert. Forget your souffles or fancy schmancy tarts. This is a pub and desserts are simple, generous and indulgent. I suggest we share – a plan that is instantly dismissed – so instead I devour a bowl of ice cream topped with honeycomb, chocolate chips and marshmallows.
It’s a kid’s idea of heaven, yet an adult’s too, especially when accompanied with a glass of port. Because hey, we’re at the Joiner’s Arms and we can be swanky and silly at the exact same time.
We finish the evening outside working our way through the cocktail menu. Becs was right, the Pornstar Martinis are excellent. And while we didn’t try the fish and chips (which come with an optional gravy boat full of curry sauce by the way), they got the dogs’ seal of approval after the lady next to us kindly donated her leftovers to them.
By the time we actually come to leave, several hours have passed and we’ve moved on to espresso martinis, making friends with an unsuspecting couple celebrating a special occasion. An impromptu tour of their hotel room is enough to make me slightly resent our decision to spend our holidays sleeping in a tin can on wheels with two Rottweilers, and also to demand that we can return one day to take advantage of a room with a rolltop bath and the bar just downstairs.
We leave warm and fuzzy, having enjoyed everything from cocktails to a kebab. It should be a contradiction but somehow it’s not. It just ticks all the boxes of the best parts of a good night, and who can fault that.
I may have missed out on the months researching, analysing and worrying about my booking at the Joiners Arms, instead stumbling upon it in the best way possible. And did that lack of anticipation detract from what proved to be a wonderful experience? Not one little bit. A salutary lesson for the future, maybe….
[We paid in full at the Joiners Arms, they didn’t know I was a blogger}