DARLINGTON Covered Market is feeling its way towards a future, with about half of it now cleared of stalls and turned over to a neon nightlife of street food, live music and drink.
So on Friday evening, my son Theo and I sat beneath the ironwork of the Victorian ceiling with the closed stalls of the butchers, fruiterers and the fishmongers at our backs, and listened as a guitarist with a combed down fringe seamlessly segued from the Beatles to Billie Eilish, and waited for our buzzers to go off to tell us our food was ready.
Even if the stalls behind us had finished trading for the day, the food section, beneath strings of fancy lights, was pleasantly full of families with young children and groups of young adults.
As well as a bar serving alcohol, there are six sheds selling street food: pizza, Thai, Hungarian, burgers, loaded fries and giant Yorkshire Puddings.
When you order at the sheds, you are given a buzzer the size of a mobile phone, take your seat and wait for the buzzer to go off.
The buzzer from Manao Thai, which also has a branch in Durham, was the first to go off. Their main dishes are all under £9 and are rice, noodles and curry. We’d chosen a starter of a duck spring roll (£4.95), which was actually four spring rolls served in a reformed cardboard bowl with a paper bowlette of sweet chilli dipping sauce.
They were blisteringly hot and fresh. Once they’d cooled enough to handle, we discovered they were correctly crispy and flaky on the outside and had a surprisingly large amount of duck meat inside. They went well with the dip. A good start.
The next buzzer to go off was my main course from the Taste of Budapest, which had two signature dishes (£10 each): pork goulash and Budapest Kebab. Goulash, a rich stew, is the only Hungarian dish I’ve ever encountered before, so I bravely opted for the Budapest Kebab.
It was shards of chicken shaved from the rotisserie covered in a cheese sauce, garlic mayo and a sprinkling of spring onions. It was served, in a cardboard box, on a bed of paprika salted fries and topped by a small garlic naan.
The marinated chicken was nice and juicy and lightly spiced, the toppings were pleasant without standing out, and the chips were superb.
So superb that Theo, waiting for his pizza buzzer to go off, forced his wooden fork into my cardboard box and tucked in.
It was with some relief, then, that his pizza buzzer lit up red and vibrated and he went off to collect his food from the Fresco hut. This is Fresco’s fourth outlet, their 12 inch pizzas are a maximum of £9, they warned us that it would take a few minutes and it was 30 before it arrived.
Theo had chosen a Classic Chicken for £8. It came in a cardboard box. Fresh from the oven, it too was extremely hot, and it was mis-shapen to give it that rustic, handmade feel.
As far as pizzas go, it was absolutely fine: doughy base with plenty of tomato sauce, cheese topping and cubes of chicken. Theo – who is gaining a little following through these columns due to his eat-anything approach – ate it all.
Desserts were hard to find, but the Yorkie Wraps shed – where giant puddings with beef, pork or chicken were £8 – did a bubble waffle with various fillings for £5. We chose a Cadbury’s Caramel and Nutella waffle, and when our buzzer went off, we were presented with it in a cardboard tube.
It was basically a Yorkshire Pudding filled with ice cream, cream and chocolate and caramel. It was sweet and really good, but absolutely impossible to eat. The fillings were melting into a liquid and the wrapped pudding needed more than our wooden spoon to cut it; the cardboard tube prevented us getting our teeth into it.
It was delicious, but a nightmare, and we ended up with sticky fingers and ice cream dribbles splattered everywhere.
So what did we learn? The food is unsophisticated and predictable – burgers, chips, pizzas, puddings: it’s all carbohydrates with baubles of flavours sprinkled on top.
If desserts are limited so are vegetarian options – I only spotted a plain pizza, a couple of salads, a halloumi wrap and some Patatas Bravas or Halloumi Fries. Just one dish, a Vegan Salad for £7 from the pizza shed, advertised that it was suitable for those who avoid all animal-related products.
And there must be truckloads of food-stained cardboard waste going out every day.
Oh, and don’t eat a loaded, foot-square waffle oozing with melting icecream and chocolate that’s been rolled into a cardboard tube without cutting it properly first.
However, all the food is genuine, freshly prepared and very tasty – no dish disappointed. There is enough variety to provide something for all the family (as long as they are not vegans).
The children enjoyed the lights and the music – there was a little gaggle of small heads bobbing about by the guitarist as he sang about how his sex was on fire – and there were lots of groups of youngish friends meeting up before going on elsewhere.
And it is good value – the cheapest chicken-topped pizza over the way at PizzaHut costs £3.19 more than the one Theo consumed.
Finally, it is good to see this landmark building that is the heart of the town in lively use instead of slowly fading away.
Darlington Food Hub
Covered Market, Darlington
Mon to Wed: 11am-3pm
Fri and Sat: 11am-10pm
Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 6 Ambience 7 Value for money 8