QUAINT cosy pubs are becoming a rarity as more boozers are given identikit makeovers.
Luckily, the Mill House in Birtley is as packed with character as it is with punters.
We rolled up there late Monday evening, after a disastrous experience at the Wessington Way, where a two-for-one buffet deal saw queues stretching across the pub.
Hungry, tired and fed-up, we ordered our drinks and drooled over the tapas bar, which offers miniature plates of pub grub to peckish drinkers.
But there’s no tired chunks of cheese and dried-out pickled onions here – oysters and sweet potatoes were the order of the day.
Although it’s a few miles out of town, The Mill House is worth appointing a designated driver for, with its wine selection which looked vast, to my untrained eye.
My companion was pleased to find it serving up real ale, including Courage Directors (£3.10), so with a pint of that and a soft drink (£1.20) for me, we took a seat in the bar, which is long and atmospherically dark, with flagstone floors and a roaring fire at one end.
Tables numbers are limited, but we found one and we were able to pour out our whinges for the day and cast our eyes over the vintage nick-nacks and trinkets which hang round The Mill House.
From antlers to old signs and antique typewriters, it had the air of a collection that has been amassed over time, rather than loaded off the back of a pub company lorry.
Finally, the hunger pangs became too much and we asked one of the friendly waiting staff if there were any tables free.
Restaurant diners are seated in a more light and airy conservatory off the main bar and luckily for us there was a table for two going spare.
Piles of chunky bread and bright-red cherry tomatoes staved off our hunger pangs while we looked through the menu, which is wide and varied, but more expensive than your average pub meal.
I treated myself to oysters, grilled with bacon and garlic (£6) – more bacon than oyster and on balance I prefer them live, with just a dash of lemon.
My partner devoured a black pudding and poached egg salad (£5.50), which I pinched a bite of to confirm it was pretty good stuff.
The seafood theme continued to our mains, with herb-crusted cod with fantastic homemade chips and mushy peas (£10.85) for him and a kilo of mussels in Thai tom yum sauce (£11.95) for me, a little salty and about three-quarters of a kilo too much, but kindly doggy-bagged up for later by our waitress.
Our bread basket was replenished for our main course, more drinks dispensed and service was prompt and friendly, despite the eating area being busy.
After turning down the dessert menu, we returned to the bar to finish our drinks, but unfortunately we’d clashed with quiz night.
Questions were in full flow and every table was full, so we had one more nose around the eccentric decor before heading home.
As we left, we noticed even the outside of The Mill House is well-groomed, with a smart little garden and the sounds of jazz from the restaurant piped out to the full car park.
An expensive treat at more than £42 for food and drinks, but worth a trip for real ale and wine buffs, with rumours of a great Sunday dinner.