Sunderland's The Engine Room turns up the heat with new menu - what to expect from The Fire Station bistro

Opening during a pandemic is a baptism of fire for any business, but the completion of the auditorium means the city’s Fire Station is now firing on all cylinders.

It’s been a long road for what was once the then town centre’s main fire station. A decade ago, it was a shell of a building that mostly went unnoticed to anyone but the pigeons who called its rafters home, but businessman Paul Callaghan saw the potential in its grand, Edwardian features and rich history and set about turning it into a multi-purpose arts and culture venue for the city.

He set up the MAC Trust to steer the 1908 building, which had lain derelict for more than 20 years, to a new future and turn it into a cornerstone of a new cultural quarter for the city.

After extensive restoration work to the main building, which still bears the names of former firefighters above the pegs and reclaimed fire station signage, it reopened to much fanfare in 2017 as the Engine Room bistro downstairs, with the upper floors housing dance and theatre studios.

After more than a year closed over lockdown, the Engine Room bistro is back open at the Fire Station, off High Street West

But that wasn’t the end for this phoenix from the ashes. In December 2021 it welcomed its auditorium, an £11million additional wing built on the site of an old car park.

It completes the internal transformation of this Edwardian gem – an outdoor stage, being built at the back of the site, will join the facilities in Spring – which now provides everything from top class gigs and studio space to a bistro.

As part of the reopening, a new management team are in place at operators Pub Culture, including new CEO Rhys McKinnell who has previously been director of restaurants for the Fenwick Department Store Group where he was responsible for the development of their flagship Food Hall in Newcastle as well as the company’s 30 bars and restaurants group wide.

With new faces at the helm, it’s led to changes to the menu. Here’s what to expect from a visit:

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The Engine Room at The Fire Station.

The decor

There’s no mistaking the red hot heritage of this building with plenty of nods to the past in the Engine Room decor. Original Edwardian tiling and flooring has been restored and enhanced with paraphernalia from other fire stations, such as fire buckets, helmets and reclaimed desks.

Booth seating at the windows makes the most of the arches which once would have framed the fire engines as they whizzed out to fight fires. It’s a great example of how an old building can be modernised whilst still honouring its past.

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Seating is a range of booths, stools and regular table seating, as well as outdoor seating at the front which is ideal for the warmer months. The electricity sub station at the front is also going to be relocated in the coming months, which will really open up the front square.

Starters and small plates from top left: spiced hummus, grilled halloumi and crispy Asian chicken

The food

Last time I ate at the Engine Room was some years ago and, although the food certainly filled a hole, it wasn’t particularly noteworthy.

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But the new team have turned up the heat and improved the offering. In keeping with the warming surroundings, the menu is pure comfort food. Think classic fish and chips, roast turkey crown, ham shank, burgers, curries and schnitzel.

Pub classics, done well, feature heavily but there’s also some more unusual options on the menu to dip into.

Panackelty mains, top dish. The bottom dish is slow cooked pork belly with crackling, black pudding, layered potatoes, Bramley apple butter and sage gravy.

I was impressed with the starters and small plates menu, so much so, we ordered three between two of us to start.

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Fried halloumi is ubiquitous these days, but served here with a chunky fig and balsamic chutney (£6) it really elevated the dish.

The spiced hummus (£5.50) was also better than the norm, punctuated with pomegranates which added a tartness to the dish, which we mopped up with the accompanying flatbread.

For a real kick, try the crispy Asian chicken (£7) served with a sriracha butter, black sesame and kimchi slaw which was a really punchy medley of flavours.

From sampling Seoul’s signature dish of kimchi, my tastebuds headed back to Sunderland for my main dish: panackelty.

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Despite it being one of the most Mackem meals going, you don’t see it often on menus in the city and this version was just what I needed on a nippy January night.

There's plenty of nods to the past in the decor

Again it raised the game and, rather than just a corned beef stew, the pot was filled with a slow cooked beef brisket that melted in the mouth with the rich sauce, as well as plenty of bacon and sausage.

It was a deconstructed panackelty of sorts with the layered potatoes and roast veg served to the side of the pot but it meant you got even more to dunk in the dish. Priced £15 it was a belly-busting portion, which is just what you want from this Sunderland classic.

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As such, I had no room for dessert but options include chocolate gin and tonic cheescake with candied lime (£7) and mulled spice apple and plum crumble with vanilla custard (£6.50).

A sunday lunch menu is also available.

For lighter bites, there’s a sandwich and bar snacks menu, as well as a children’s menu where you can pick up two courses and a drink for £9.

Prices

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Starters and small plates start at £5.50 for red lentil and butternut squash soup topped with pumpkin seeds, with the most expensive starter being the pan fried king prawns in garlic butter at £8.50, which is fair for seafood.

Mains start at £14 for an Engine Room burger, rising to £22 for a ribeye steak, which is again competitively priced for steak.

There’s a good range of wines, cocktails, cask ales and draught options available, as well as low and no alcohol mocktails and cans.

Cocktails start from £8 with wines starting from £3.50 a glass. Cask ales change regularly. At the minute you can sit back and relax with local brews, including a hazy Vaux VPA and Sunderland icon Samson for £4 a pint.

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Opening hours

The Engine Room bar and bistro is now open Monday to Saturday from 11.30am to late and Sundays from 12noon to 10pm. It gets particularly busy prior to a gig at the auditorium and Empire so it’s best to book ahead for food.

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The current guest cask ales
The Fire Station dates back to 1908.
The auditorium joined the Fire Station development in December 2021
The sub station will be moved to open up the outdoor space