“Fine dining does not have a good track record in Newcastle. It’s often said that people in the North East like big portions, and that is true to some extent. What we do is fine dining, of course, but we do it in such a way that people don’t really notice.”
The notion that guests partaking in Kenny Atkinson’s £110 10-course tasting menu might not realise they are having a top-flight restaurant experience is – on the face of it – a bit silly. But, on the other hand, this focused yet easy-going Tyneside-born chef does have a point. Though his House of Tides restaurant on Newcastle’s Quayside holds a Michelin star and was ranked fourth on our list of the top 100 restaurants in the UK last year the food is notably unpretentious while the building itself, with its white-washed walls weathered old pillars and brickwork and gloriously wonky lines, has a vibe more akin to a gastropub than a temple of gastronomy.
Quite how its chef-patron got his bank manager to sign off on the restaurant – which he launched with his wife Abbie in 2014 – remains a mystery. The enormous space is far too large for the 50-cover tasting menu-only restaurant that it holds, and its Grade 1 listing has caused many headaches over the years with even the smallest changes having to be run past Historic England.
“We can’t do anything to it. That’s sort of the beauty of it,” says Atkinson in the way that a vintage car enthusiast might describe a pristine yet unreliable 1940’s Daimler. “If you spill a glass of red wine upstairs it will go straight through the floor onto the people below. It’s a basic building but we’ve grown to love it.”
Atkinson, who got his debut solo restaurant off the ground with just a bank loan and a little help from an electrician friend who took a small stake in the restaurant in return for rewiring it, says he looked at a lot of sites in the city before deciding on the building. “Nothing really ticked the box as we didn’t want to be in a glass box or near bars and clubs, which is quite difficult in Newcastle.”
The rickety old building aside, Newcastle - the home of Greggs, the ‘parmo’ and partygoers famous for dressing as if they were in the Caribbean rather than besides the North Sea, and having consistently proved itself an inhospitable environment for ambitious restaurants - might also have given Atkinson’s bank manager pause for thought.
“If I hadn’t had some profile in the city and further afield then there’s absolutely no way it would have happened,” says Atkinson, whose appearance on shows including Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen prior to launching House of Tides has helped him become one of the North East’s most high-profile chefs.
Not going with the tide
History was also not on Atkinson’s side at the inception of House of Tides. Before his attempt, the only person to have managed to get fine dining right in Newcastle is Terry Laybourne, who won the city its first-ever Michelin star with 21 Queen Street, which opened in the late 1980s not too far from the run of former merchant’s houses that are now House of Tides.
Atkinson has followed in Laybourne’s footsteps to be on the crest of a new wave of gastronomic regeneration in the North East, with House of Tides having now been joined by the likes of Raby Hunt in Darlington, Hjem in Hexham and the more recently launched Pine in Wall House.
His food is refined but free of fuss. An enormous hand-dived scallop – headed by Jake Siddle, the kitchen is big on premium ingredients – is served with a bacon jam and grated black truffle while sweetbreads are partnered with cauliflower, raisins and curry spices.
The cooking has a directness to it that makes it suitable for people that might be on the fence about top-end eating but it isn’t in any way dumbed down with Atkinson’s considerable experience – he has attracted stars at two other restaurants – shining through on every plate.
People will no doubt realise they’re in a fine dining restaurant when they sit down to eat at Atkinson’s follow up to House of Tides. Expected to open in April, Solstice will be located in the next-door space that was once home to the couple’s Michelin Bib Gourmand-winning bistro Violets, which closed as a result of the pandemic.
“We had been looking all over Newcastle for a new site, but we couldn’t find anything that was quite right,” explains Atkinson. “Then Abbie pointed out that we had a place just sitting there that was perfect for it.”
The lease has been extended from five to 15 years to justify the significant investment that has been required for Solstice’s high-end finish. The artists impressions Atkinson has on his phone show a restaurant that is the anthesis of House of Tides with clean, straight lines, marble counters and circular recessed wall lights that reference the restaurant’s name.
At just 14 covers, Solstice will be far more intimate than House of Tides and will allow Atkinson and team to cook more ambitious, intricate food. That said, he is clear that despite the different surrounds the fundamentals won’t change.
“The execution will be different, but the DNA will be the same. This is primarily about pushing my skills as a chef rather than changing how I cook. We serve around 50 people per service at House of Tides. Some things are difficult when you’re working at scale.”
Far fewer covers will also give the team access to even higher quality produce than that used at House of Tides. Menus will be created daily and will only be given to guests at the end of the meal, thereby giving the team the freedom to work with ingredients that have far more limited availability.
“We use the best produce we can find at House of Tides but doing 400 covers a week does rule some stuff out because we need consistency. We will be far more flexible at Solstice because we will be able to work closely with suppliers to secure tiny amounts of the very best produce.”
Lockdown – specifically having the time to binge watch a number of Netflix environmental documentary including Seaspiracy - has caused Atkinson to rethink some of his sourcing practices. The restaurant is asking a lot more questions of its suppliers and is no longer buying anything that’s been trawled. Where possible it has also switched to high-quality farmed fish, such as from Scotland’s Gigha Halibut.
Newcastle and its immediate surroundings are known for its craft beers, gins and cheeses, which the restaurant takes advantage of, and the majority of its meat comes from Northumberland and the Yorkshire Dales. Yet while many ingredients are sourced locally, Atkinson does not subscribe to the view that local is necessarily best. “We’re not a hyperlocal place; you can get a bit caught up in local sourcing. When you’re charging what we are we need to make sure we’re using the very best.”
Another key difference between House of Tides and Solstice will be the latter’s open kitchen. The chefs at House of Tides are shut away in a small downstairs kitchen but the chefs next door will be free to talk to the guests and will also serve most of the dishes.
“It’s going to be intimate and allow guests to see behind the scenes. I want it to be more personal with more interactions between the chefs and the staff,” says Atkinson, who cites the more modern, free-form approaches to service favoured by the likes of Bethnal Green’s Da Terra and, more locally, Hjem and Pine as key influences for how things will be done at Solstice.
A tale of two venues
Chefs running two restaurants side-by-side is nothing new but typically one is more casual than the other. Two tasting menu-only restaurants in the same location is less common and potentially problematic.
“We’re going to have to be careful with the messaging,” Atkinson admits. “I don’t want people to think I’m switching the ambition from here to there. The opening of Solstice does not signal that we have achieved all we want to achieve at House of Tides.”
The menu will be longer than at House of Tides and is likely to be priced around £150 (the main House of Tides tasting menu will increase to £120 in April, so it’s not that big a jump).
Solstice will be open mid week-only to improve work life balance for staff and to allow Atkinson to support the House of Tides team on Saturdays, which are always fully booked.
“I appreciate that might be controversial. I want to commit to it, but I need to be realistic. I’m 46 this year, I need to get the balance right. Besides, with just 14 covers we will hopefully be full every service, so creating an atmosphere won’t be a problem.”
Solstice will initially be open Tuesday to Friday evenings but is likely to start offering lunch on Thursdays and Fridays shortly after launching. The restaurant will be staffed by up to four chefs, a restaurant manager, a sommelier and a commis waiter. The new team will largely be made of the current House of Tides team members, including House of Tides' junior sous chef Scott John-Hodgson.
Holding onto good people and pushing his skills as a chef are the main reasons given for doubling up in his home city. Though he doesn’t say so implicitly one suspects the launch is a play for two Michelin stars, with Atkinson hinting prices might go up if “certain accolades” come his way.
A Geordie sure thing
So how did a lad from Tyneside become one of the North of England’s best-known chefs? Atkinson’s career started with a YTS apprentice scheme at Newcastle College that saw him cook basic but homemade food at his uncle’s pub.
Inspiration did not come straight away but exposure to early 90s cooking TV – including the output of the Roux brothers, Gary Rhodes and Marco Pierre White – led to a stage with Simon Radely at the Chester Grosvenor.
“It blew me away,” Atkinson recalls. “I’d never worked with or tasted luxury ingredients like veal, lobster, truffles and caviar before. I asked Simon what I needed to do to get to his level. He told me to go to London, to work in a good place and enjoy and learn the trade as best I can.”
The young chef followed Radely’s advice to the letter, working at several top kitchens including at The Park restaurant at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park under Hywel Jones and for Simon Hulstone at Cotswold House in Chipping Campden. He learnt quick, taking his first head chef’s role at just 26 at The Greenway hotel in Cheltenham.
The team pushed hard for a star, perhaps too hard. “We were cooking some really phenomenal food but looking back we were doing too much. We ended up getting burnt out and I got a bit disheartened with it all.”
Despite Atkinson being hotly tipped for the three years he was there a star never came. The arrival of he and Abbie’s first child (they now have three) saw Atkinson change tack, taking an executive chef role at The Tean restaurant on the Scilly Isles Island of St Martin’s.
The numbers were much bigger – a 120-cover fine dining restaurant plus a 200-cover brasserie – but being forced to simplify his cooking resulted in Atkinson attracting a star shortly after joining.
"We let the ingredients speak for themselves. The menu was 80% fish because of where we were. I actually found it a total pain in the arse at first because there was so much prep to do but the produce was amazing as we got it straight off the boats.”
The convoluted journey that then Michelin Guide UK & Ireland editor Derek Bulmer took to get there – it involved a train, a boat, a helicopter, and a tractor – generated extra publicity for the restaurant.
Island life had its pros, not least that the restaurant was only open seven months a year, but also its cons with Atkinson unable to leave the island during the high season to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to him by his growing profile.
In 2009, he returned to the North East to oversee the White Room restaurant at Seaham Hall in County Durham. He retained the restaurant’s star and started picking up TV work thanks to both his talent in the kitchen and his approachable, down-to-earth demeanour.
His increased profile – he had a dish selected for Great British Menu’s final banquet two years on the trot - and issues at the then Von Essen-owned hotel saw Atkinson move to nearby hotel Rockcliffe Hall to head up its three restaurants as food director.
A hattrick denied
Given Atkinson’s track record, a star for the hotel’s flagship Orangery restaurant seemed inevitable, but it never came. “I thought I had cracked the formula and was delivering everything I needed to for those four years. I think I may have been being punished for getting stars for places and then leaving,” he muses.
“I do get it. It must be frustrating for Michelin to print a guidebook and for it to be immediately out of date,” says Atkinson, who was able to push the reset button on his relationship with Michelin by striking out on his own with House of Tides, which was awarded its star six months after it opened.
“When you've been employed by someone to win a star getting it is a relief. When you’re working for yourself, it is far more rewarding and emotional. The day we got the star here was the first time I appreciated its value. The business changed completely; we went from doing 20 to 40 at lunch, which allowed us to reinvest in all elements of the business, including the installation of a much better kitchen.”
Now does seem like another good time to invest in the future of the business once again. While clearly far from ideal, the damage to the bottom-line brought inflicted by the pandemic was mitigated by House of Tides being large enough to not lose any covers to social distancing and the consequent boom in domestic tourism.
Given his track record, Atkinson looks likely to bring at least one more star to his home city, although he is sensible enough to not come across as complacent. “With regards to what makes a star I still don't know,” he shrugs. “If I knew the formula, I would have got one at Rockcliffe and I would have two at House of Tides. All you can do is try your best I suppose.”