A run of events, gigs and, of course SAFC’s much-needed, and deserved, promotion to the Championship has seen a wave of optimism and, dare I say it, renewed level of pride in Sunderland’s offering, for those at home and those visiting from away.
There’s those that will knock it, there always is, but there’s no denying the city centre is a much different landscape to what it was a decade, even five years, ago.
Yes, there’s been losses. Debenhams, for example, has left a huge hole at a gateway to The Bridges, and has been one of many victims of the consumer shift to online retail (a national issue, no fault of Sunderland’s, before the knockers start). And, yes, there are some boarded up shops, name me a city centre where there isn’t, given the current climate.
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But there’s been huge gains, too, and it’s a level of investment we’ve long needed as a city.
The varied and vibrant offering at The Fire Station, the cultural hotspot that is Pop Recs, the hub of quality independent traders at Mackie’s Corner, the blooming lovely Minster Park on once wasted grassland, the central focal point of Keel Square which we’d been really lacking as a city centre, even The City Hall from its prime position over the Wear is surely a building which fosters more civic pride than the rather tired Civic Centre, no matter what your political persuasion – all new additions which have dramatically changed the face of Wearside.
And that’s just the start.
In the coming months and years, we can look forward to new restaurants beneath the new Holiday Inn, Culture House, homes (which are key to boosting any city centre footfall and economy) and a park on the £500m Riverside development, plus the very exciting developments fast taking shape at Sheepfolds with its new leisure and events space at the old stables, and a new pedestrian bridge to link the two, as well as a fancy new £26m railway station to replace the soulless entrance to the city we had before.
It all adds to the existing businesses, those who’ve been reliably serving us for decades, the likes of Tosca, Asiana, Angelo’s, Greens and many more, to create a varied hospitality offering on a level we’ve not seen before.
Visit on a weekend for food these days and you’re almost spoilt for choice when it comes to eating out – there’s still more openings to come before we’re quite rubbing shoulders with the likes of Durham and *coughs* Newcastle on that front. But coming they are, and it’s all creating a palpable, tenable change.
One of the restaurants really flying the flag for dining out is Spent Grain.
Opened in May last year following the lockdowns, it turned an empty, rather forgotten unit, in John Street into a slick new restaurant with a menu that’s got more flair than most.
It survived its first year in business, navigating one of the hospitality industry’s most-challenging chapters, and was recently taken over by its staff, Nathan Outhwaite, front of house, and chef Carley Wood who built up a firm following for her dishes at the former D’Acqua.
The ethos is casual dining and quality produce in the laid back setting of the restaurant with its open kitchen under a central skylight, bare brick walls which add a New York loft apartment feel, trailing foliage features and shelves stocked with local beers, quality wines and more.
Food wise, the choice is excellent: lip-smacking options such as pork belly bites, halloumi tacos, flatbreads, Croque Madam, pil pil prawns, Buddha bowls, steak frites, rhubarb mess, Biscoff brownie and more.
Prices are fair for the quality, particularly the lunch menu which offers one course for £11, two courses for £15 and three courses for £20. Sunday lunch is the same price, bar an extra quid for one course.
I’d been eyeing up their brunch menu on Instagram and the lure of eggs Benedict with pork belly (£8) was strong when I visited last Saturday.
I wasn’t quite sure how such a rich meat would work with an already rich Hollandaise, but it was a triumph.
Despite it being a fatty cut of meat, the pork belly wasn’t sickeningly so and had just the right amount of bite. It worked perfectly with the freshly poured Hollandaise (a sauce I can never quite get right at home), spinach and a punchy tomato chutney on a toasted muffin.
We’d visited for brunch, but as it was past noon, didn’t feel too guilty about ordering a wine and the incredibly drinkable Pinot Grigio, £6.70 for a large glass was the perfect, crisp choice.
My mam also managed to shoehorn in a dessert, which arrived like a work of art – shards of wafer flanking a velvety salted caramel and dark chocolate mascarpone cheesecake on a buttery biscuit base – a moreish bargain at £6.
It’s a gamble for a restaurant like Spent Grain to go against the grain and bring something new to a city that’s lost many new restaurants over the years. As with all the new additions we’ve welcomed of late, make sure you use it, so we don’t lose it.
:: Spent Grain is open Monday and Tuesdays from 10am to 2pm for brunch and lunch; Wednesday to Saturday from 10am to 3pm for brunch and lunch and from 5pm – 9pm for dinner and on Sundays from noon until 4pm for Sunday lunch only. Booking is recommended.