Making a meal of a night at the theatre isn’t always easy in Sunderland.
Aside from chain pubs, and the welcome addition of the sprinkling of new bars that have opened in this corner of the city, there isn’t masses of choice for people who want to dine ahead of curtain up
The Empire cottoned on to this and decided to capitalise on the custom they’re bringing into the city centre by opening its own restaurant.
Cue the Garden Place Bistro, so called after the side street which runs adjacent to the theatre, which has taken over a back bar at the Grade II-listed building.
The bistro is away from the bustle of the venue’s bars, and though we heard one of our fellow diners describing it like ‘eating in a corridor’, we didn’t find that at all.
The 45-seater bistro makes clever use of an under-used bar (most people probably didn’t even know it was there) and creates a new restaurant that’s sympathetic to the history of the building, with a heritage colour palette that’s in keeping with the recent renovation of the Dress Circle bar in all its Edwardian splendour.
With its stylish plush seating and feature lighting it wouldn’t look out of place as a stand alone restaurant, but is specifically aimed at theatre-goers. As such, it’s only open on performance nights from 5.30pm and on matinee days from 12.30pm. With such a small window, booking is recommended.
The menu’s also tailored to theatre-goers: you don’t want anything too heavy ahead of taking your seat for a two-hour musical.
With that in mind, it offers a selection of sharing boards, classics and pizzas, as well as a kids menu on request. Prices are two courses for £12.95 or three courses for £16.95.
Or, individually, you can expect to pay £4.50 for a soup or £6 for starters such as grilled halloumi or ginger and lemon chicken skewers, while mains options include a pulled pork and jalapeño burger for a tenner and pork sausages for £9.
Our waitress informed us that a couple of the sharing boards weren’t available – a shame, as they’re ideal for a place like this.
Instead, I chose the baked Camembert to start (£6).
It was presented prettily enough on a board with sprigs of rocket and a cherry tomato and oregano focaccia (a gluten-free option is also available), which was perfect for dunking in the warm round of cheese as it oozed into submission.
For mains, I chose the pea and mint quinotto, a hybrid dish of risotto and quinoa (see what they did there), which is reasonably priced at £10.
It’s not a mix I’ve had before, but it worked, with the quinoa, helping to make a usually rich dish a little lighter. Green beans, asparagus and peas added extra texture, while a lemon and mint sauce had a spring-like zing.
We were given feedback cards on our way out by the staff who were keen for people’s response to the new concept. It seems Garden Place is aiming to grow as a business, but it’s already a blooming good addition to the venue.