You wait ages for a new restaurant to open in Sunderland, then four come along at once.
When Liberty Brown first opened its doors some years ago, many said it wouldn’t work at its out-of-the-way location on Hylton Riverside retail park. But being out on a limb has worked and the restaurant has built up a popular following, so much so that owners Apartment Group have branched out to create The Palm.
The Liberty Brown faithful needn’t fear: it’s still there, but it’s moved upstairs into the former Saucy Burger site. Meanwhile, the downstairs has undergone a major makeover and substantial extension. So major, they’ve invested £1.5million in creating four new venues, and it’s an expenditure that shows, in the imported towering palm trees that welcome you to this site to the striking Day of the Dead-style mural behind one of the bars.
Each of the four new areas has their own theme and character and each, in its own right, is a striking addition to the city’s eating out scene. I’ve eaten in two of the new venues since it opened, Wildernest and Tropicuba, and I’ll definitely be ticking Pineapple Cove and The Street Garden off my list at some point.
In Wildernest you’ll find a lodge-style decor of hand-made elm bar and seats strewn with fur throws. The cabin feel is echoed in the menu - the biggest of the four new venues - with hearty choices such as mince and dumplings (£12.95) and a full rack of ribs (£18.95), as well as a decent range of choice for vegan and vegetarian diners.
If you’re craving crustacean, there’s a whole section devoted to lobster - which you’ll struggle to find on most other menus in the city.
I had the half lobster. It’s not a cheap main at £17.95, but lobster isn’t a cheap dish, and the price includes plenty of fries and a choice of dressings - either garlic and lemon butter, thermidor or an Asian-inspired chilli, mango, sesame and coriander. The lobsters are brought onto site live and it shows in the delicate fresh flavour. To shave off some of the pounds, there’s a mid week set menu of three courses for just £14.95.
While Wildernest is very much a winter hideaway, next door The Palm turns up the heat with Tropicuba. Inspired by the richly coloured streets of Havana, Tropicuba has a colour palette of pinks and blues punctuated with bird of paradise flowers, staff in flamboyant floral head bands and that striking mural I mentioned before, which is a real show-stopper of a feature.
The menu’s smaller here than in Wildernest, in choice and size, offering tapas inspired by Cuba’s melting pot of flavours at the bargain price of five for £20 on selected plates, an offer which runs Monday to Friday from noon until 7pm.
Five was plenty between the two of us. They’re billed as small plates, but we tucked into a generous portion of moreishly chewy halloumi fries with pomegranate and lashings of sour cream; a pleasingly pink tuna steak on a bed of spiralled courgette, crunchy slaw with crushed peanuts and a pickled chilli dressing; tender beef and pork albondigas served with a punchy aioli; moist steak picadillo with charred peppers and onions and sharing flatbread strips with pots of garlic sauce, peanut and beetroot houmous, chilli cream cheese and olive oil.
Background music suits the vibe here with chilled street beats. Visit later on in the night and they turn up the tempo with a live DJ and percussionists.
On weekends the party crowds can also spill out into the garden area at this late night venue, which has a fire pit and street food shacks selling gourmet kebabs, bao buns and more.
For drinks across the four new sites you can expect the exotic cocktails which have helped the Apartment Group - whose portfolio includes As You Like It and Florita’s in Newcastle - make its name, with concoctions served in everything from hollowed pineapples to flaming glass skulls. Price-wise, expect to pay from £5.95 for a cocktail and £7.95 for a premium gin and tonic.
Wine choices are more limited, but beer lovers can also enjoy a large choice of pale ales, beers and ciders.
If you’re visiting during daylight hours, little ones are well catered for in Pineapple Cove cafe with its fancy beach shack feel and its menu of coffees, sandwiches, waffles and sundaes.
It all adds to the totally tropical taste here which makes it a destination venue on the banks of the River Wear that wouldn’t look out of place in a location with sunnier climes than Sunderland.