Blake’s heaven

An old stager can still captivate its clientele, as Alastair Gilmour discovers

If life teaches you some lessons, near the top of the list will be ‘read the instructions’. Rules, directions and advice, however, go straight over some people’s heads. 

The Ikea step-by-step guide is usually tossed aside with a grunt of, “there’s only four bits to it, how can it go wrong?” Yet it does. The tin of gloss paint – “stir well before use” – is similarly dismissed. It’s been slooping and glooping in the car all the way home from B&Q, so that’ll do. Only it won’t.

So when a sandwich is labelled “melt”, perhaps it’s a clue to how the filling is best enjoyed – but no, some of us go for plain “straight”. Lunch-life lesson: when it says melt, get it toasted.

The display cabinet at Blake’s Coffee House & Kitchen in Grey Street, Newcastle, is crammed with sandwiches and savouries – some of them “melts” and all of them making the choice really difficult. Parma ham, beef tomato and mozarrella sesame-seeded buns yawn with a plumpness only marginally more voluptuous than their neighbouring sweet chilli chicken beauties.

Mexican bean melt is a long, cheesy tiger bread crammed with tomato, cheese and kidney beans which does a hat dance when warmed through, while the minted lamb roll is a straightforward but delectable contribution to the science of melt.

Blake’s has been a Grey Street institution for the best part of 20 years with an emphasis on simple things done well. It has a jazz and blues vibe – Friday night is live blues night – emphasised by framed photos of Bob Dylan looking cool, Johnny Cash in pensive pose, soul daddies from the Seventies with mutton-chop sideburns, big hair and bigger collars, and entertainers from the days when musicians sang, strummed and smoked all in the same breath.

Blake’s clientele is varied – office drones, shoppers, trippers, wanderers, regulars and one-off sightseers merely popping in for a cuppa, but like many a coffee house since JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter over endless fill-ups, it attracts the long lingerers; the newspaper scourers and laptop tappers. Everyone adds to its liveliness. The chatter is animated and when the place busies as lunchtime approaches it ascends to a loud clatter that all-but drowns out the ‘chchch-whoosh’ from the espresso machine; the reassuring sound that tells you there’s nothing instant in the cup.

The café’s interior is pared back to simple dressed stonework, timber panelling finished in pastel greens, and a frieze of cheerful tiling. A full mix of furniture styles regularly scrapes the bare floorboards.

Two raised areas at the huge windows are generally occupied by observers of Grey Street’s ups and downs, although you can while away the time in similar but more continental fashion on the pavement with a glass of wine or beer, weather permitting. The wearing of sunglasses isn’t compulsory, but it adds attitude to the Blakes savoir-faire.

New owners are slowly freshening the place up, though to be honest it doesn’t need much. But there’s a mountain of competition in this part of town, now that the banks, finance houses and insurance offices have retreated to make way for restaurants such as Las Iguanas, Café Rouge, Browns and 9Bar. Pleased To Meet You has opened to high fives around the corner in High Bridge, prompting Fitzgerald’s pub nearby to close in July for a six-week refit. And with Carluccio’s about to open its doors just up the road, this slice of Newcastle has become a serious culinary parade rather than a quick route to the Quayside.

Blake’s, though, is more everyday affordable than many of them with jacket potatoes starting at £3.75. Full English breakfast (£5.95), available till 2pm, is a combo of the usual suspects – Cumberland sausage, bacon, egg, mushroom – while the Full Monty (£8.95) is doubly so.

Eggs come as royal, benedict or salsa (from £5.95) and again the choice is made all the more difficult with a menu of kippers, breakfast stotties and porridge.

Cheese, chive and red pepper quiche with salad has a bit of clack and we’ve got rather fond
of milkshakes with Italian ice cream, which is a richly indulgent

Blake’s doesn’t need to change too much; it’s got bags of the character and wit that you can’t magic up from a refurb. It’s got value on its chalkboards and animation in its soul. Just melt into the atmosphere.

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