Go Wilde

The importance of ambience isn’t lost on Alastair Gilmour

You don’t come across many Ernests these days. The name has such an old-fashioned ring we’re unlikely to see its ilk again. 

We had one in primary school, which wasn’t yesterday, and the last we can recall was the Oscar Wilde character who wasn’t even real, being the alter ego of Jack Worthing in The Importance Of Being Earnest.

Algernon (to Jack): You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to everyone as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw…It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn’t Ernest. It’s on your cards.

It’s also on the wall of a flat-walled, industrial-aspect block squatting between Shieldfield and the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle. Ernest is a café/bar with nothing old-fashioned or absurd about it; it drips with funkiness and daddio-osity which isn’t a word, more of a gut feeling. Oscar Wilde would approve. We’ve hardly got settled on the cow hide-like upholstered banquette and a customer rises from his table, saying: “Try the breakfast, it’s amazing.”

While appreciating this earnest recommendation, it is rather like putting a gun on the table during political negotiations. What if chorizo hash bowl has more to offer? Can you really use pancetta and Gruyère flatbread as a bargaining tool?

There’s a buzz about Ernest, cheery banter lobbed from table to table, background music with a thump to it, and the sort of place where you’d quite easily make friends. We invariably warm to small areas of exposed brickwork, mismatched chairs and worn floorboards, while huge timber beams and iron columns reveal creative use of form – basically, having been industrial premises (British Paints), the interior dictates the layout but the space is used well. The colour scheme – grey, lime green and pink – could be out of tins liberated from the back of a garage, but on discovering many of Ernest’s staff are artists in their own right, we concede it’s been far more studied than that. Plus, owner (Ernest) Gavin Marshall was an artist working in glass, studied building management, and is a unicyclist (with wheel of fire), so mere chance is not on his menu.

A glass mural lit with Wilde’s famous words and a display case of Star Wars figures also emphasise self-contentment.

Right- Breakfast. Or All-day Brunch as it’s called. Ernest Large (£7.95) is two rashers of smoked bacon, mushrooms, home-made beans, black pudding, rainbow rosti, free-range eggs – poached, scrambled or fried – with toast and home-made ketchup.

You can build your own with Cumberland sausage, roasted vine tomatoes and toasted muffin or innumerable combinations. It is, as they say here, amazing.

But Ernest’s speciality is flatbread – like pizza but not, and much easier to eat, particularly if you’re trying demolish it with some decorum.

A couple across the room appear to be on a first date, one nervously gripping his mug of tea with both hands, the other looking pleased that it’s flatbread in front of him and not a 16-inch Margherita.

Our Moroccan minced lamb, pine nut, feta cheese and parsley flatbread (£7) features lashings of tomato, sprinklings of spiced lamb and bombings of feta. It’s deliciously and delicately spiced with an aftertaste that lingers – again amazing, given that we’ve flooded our palates with draught Pilsner Urquell (£1.95), a particularly fine beer.

We particularly like the Big Kid Little Kid suggestion that recognises some appetites aren’t equal, so home-made fish finger sandwiches or bangers and sweet potato chips do nicely for those less hungry.

It may be a clever ploy, too. A portion of chocolate cake traverses the room and lands to whoops of delight. In other places, this slice would be called a cake. Its recipient has simply taken advantage of Big Kid Little Kid.

Ernest hosts parties, music nights and performance art. The bar is comprehensive with some stylish continental beers and a local ale is on the cards.

A back room could be used for any function with a balcony planned to extend it and an application is in for outside seating.

Post-industrial areas seem to attract creative people with ideas that can often be viewed as naive, but that’s their advantage – if they’d thought of all the pitfalls they’d never have got started.

Ernest is audacious, presumptuous and cool. Like its All Day Brunch, Ernest is amazing.

Gwendolen: It suits you perfectly. It is a divine name. It has a music of its own. It produces vibrations.

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