September 20 2014 Latest news:
Friday, November 4, 2011
An overlooked city centre institution, the Walnut Tree Shades has had a makeover and the upstairs restaurant has gone from tired roadhouse to snazzy diner. SIMON PARKIN paid a visit.
The Walnut Tree Shades is a city centre institution that is, strangely enough, both a firm favourite and a hidden gem. For regulars it’s a handy bolt-hole yards from the hustle and bustle.
For those not in the know, it’s somewhere they only ever briefly glimpse as they walk past the Castle Street entrance to Old Post Office Court.
From Gentleman’s Walk you’d never guess it was there at all, being down a narrow, unappealing alleyway at the side of Lloyd’s bank, otherwise only frequented by pale-pallor youths heading to the amusement arcade.
If you’ve never set foot in the pub, don’t let any of this put you off though. In a world of ever changing theme bars, it’s one of those reassuring places.
For years and years, under long-standing landlord Chris Gudgin, who had run the place for 24 years, nothing about it changed.
Downstairs it was part traditional British pub, part American roadhouse — complete with walls full of rock‘n’roll memorabilia and a fantastic old vinyl jukebox full of blues records (which only took old 10p and 50p coins), while upstairs was a separate American style restaurant/grill.
Then earlier this year, after a brief period of uncertainty over its future, it was taken on by new landlords Claire Wilson and Dawn Baillie, who previously worked together at the Boundary pub in Hellesdon.
Thankfully pair identified the need for evolution not revolution and instead of wholesale change they’ve kept what was great about the old place while giving it a much need facelift.
They spent several weeks undertaking a £20,000 refurbishment and nowhere has this paid off more than in the upstairs restaurant.
Before it had a tired and faded feel with old seating booths that had seen better days and lighting so dark you struggled to read the menu. Now the booths have gone in favour of smart tables and chairs, vivid red cushioned benches, a black and white checkerboard floor and hanging tiffany lampshades.
The whole place feels light, brighter more vibrant, but, importantly, without loosing that American feel. It’s gone from being a trucker’s roadhouse on a forgotten part of Route 66 to a downtown diner in New York.
To match that makeover, the menu has also been overhauled. The basics are the same — steaks, burgers, staples from the Deep South and the Mexican borderlands, but with plenty of fresh new ideas through in. This menu changes regularly too, keeping things fresh and introducing new dishes. Plus there is a daily specials board.
There are a dozen set starters, ranging from potato skins smothered in cheese, bacon and chilli to meatballs and Mississippi chicken strips and three different sharing platters, vegetarian at £9.95, mixed with a range of meat and non meat at £10.95 and the full-on meat feast for £11.95.
We opted for the Walnut nachos at £5,95 and the Walnut wings, £5.50 or £7.95 large — neither of which involved actual walnuts, though we did hear someone on a neighbouring query this.
Be warned the nachos are a huge plateful of chips under melted cheese, jalapeño and a generous dollops of sour cream, spicy salsa and guacamole — you can have chilli too for an extra couple of quid. It was delicious and devil-ishly moreish, but could easily have been shared.
The wings come from locally sourced, free-range chicken, oven roasted with a choice of sauces, the most exotic of which is mango and jalapeño. The wings were sticky and succulent, the sauce a little too sweet for me, but not for all.
The main courses breaks down into grilled steaks and chicken breasts, five burgers, including a £7.59 basic classic burger that you can jazz up with a range of toppings at extra cost, chicken and rib variations and Southern fare including jambalaya and chilli that comes with meat or without.
For me it was a £8.50 minted lamb burger that came a rather un-American-like ciabatta-style roll and with a choice of fries or wedges. The burger itself wasn’t the best I’ve ever tasted, but it was well flavoured and cooked and I finished the whole thing so no complaints. Though I’d have liked a few lees fries and more coleslaw.
Meanwhile an 8oz sirloin steal at £14.95, with hickory sauce was similarly polished off and declared perfectly cooked. The steaks are all locally sourced and hung for at least 21 days for extra taste.
American food isn’t particularly novel, of course, and there are plenty of places in and around offering similar, but you can now add the Walnut among the best. Worth another look.
WALNUT TREE SHADES
Old Post Office Court
Open: Food served Mon-Sat 12pm-10pm, Sun 12pm-6pm
Prices: Starters from £4.25, mains from £7.95, desserts from £4.95
Vegetarian options: Reasonable, including options on several main courses.
Wheelchair access: Restaurant is upstairs, however food is also served downstairs.