BBC broadcaster Huw Edwards, in the current issue of The Lady, urges churches to take more seriously the biological requirement of visitors, specifically the need to use the loo.

Too many have no facilities at all but, Mr Edwards implores, good loos are “essential to the long-term survival of our nation’s finest churches.”

Well, Amen to that, but what, you are justifiably asking, has this got to do with a food review?

It just that the quality of the loos frequently features in the overall assessment of the places we visit because often they can be what makes an establishment different. These days so many places can produce a decent plate of food, it’s the other elements that make the difference.

Visiting Durham Cathedral recently, the quality of its loos was a factor in our view of the Undercroft Restaurant. When Bill Bryson in his Notes from a Small Island declared Durham Cathedral to be “the finest cathedral on Planet Earth” he wasn’t talking about the gents’ conveniences, which are cold and well past their best. They may well due for refurbishment under the cathedral’s Open Treasure project but for the time being they are not its finest feature.

It should be said the ladies, according to Sylvia, are considerably better than the gents so female readers can ignore all the above, as can the gents of course, who don’t really give a stuff about such matters.

The Undercroft had been on the ‘to-do’ list for a long time. A previous visit many years ago had been disappointing. The cathedral authorities were disappointed with our less than glowing assessment and urged us to call again following a refurbishment/revamp at the beginning of this year.

We tried a return visit in the summer but arriving towards the end of the Saturday lunchtime serving period, the place was packed, there was very little food left and it was very hot in there. Which is why we ended up having a very pleasant lunch at the university’s Cafe on the Green (see review, August 1).

We finally made our return on a Saturday lunchtime in November and arrived early to make sure there was a decent selection of dishes available.

We were not entirely sure what the refurbishment earlier this year consisted of because the layout is fundamentally the same as before but we thought some clever things had been done with the lighting, which now shows off the magnificent vaulted ceiling to great effect.

The beech tables and chairs, handcrafted by the Cathedral’s craftsmen, were supremely comfortable, the glass wall on one end provides views of the Cathedral’s Open Treasure appeal Lego model and the gift shop beyond. All in all it’s a unique environment in which to eat a full meal or just to grab a quick tea/coffee and piece of cake.

And what of the food? Firstly, it is worth noting that this is essentially a cafeteria so that means food sitting under heat lamps which places limitations on the dishes than can be realistically prepared and then kept warm for an indeterminate period of time.

Secondly, the operation is run by contract catering firm Elior and has been for some years. If that sounds like the kiss of death, it is not necessarily so. There’s no evidence of a corporate menu. There is some evidence of local sourcing although sadly the Durham ales from the Bowburn brewery we had previously enjoyed at the Undercroft were nowhere to be seen.

The lunchtime menu served between noon and 2pm features a range of sandwiches (£3.95), jacket potatoes with a variety of fillings (£4.95-5.25) and a cheese and tomato quiche with salad (£5.25).

In addition to soup (tomato, lentil and vegetable or cauliflower, broccoli and Stilton – £3.95), there were three main course dishes – Irish stew, chicken and leek pie, and a vegetable cannelloni (all £6.35) – and two specials – fish pie and Shepherd’s pie (also £6.35).

Sylvia had the Irish stew which she thought excellent – good chunks of braised beef in a rich, smooth gravy. My chicken and leek pie featured a thick but light shortcrust pastry case with a creamy filling with decent pieces of chicken. Hearty, wholesome fare and plenty of it.

Both dishes were served with a selection of vegetables including new potatoes, carrots and cabbage which had survived exposure to the heat lamps well. Perhaps that was down to the high turnover; the restaurant was very busy and we were eating early so they couldn’t have been drying up in the servery for very long.

Despite an array of what looked like truly mouth-watering cakes and other sweet goodies we decided against anything more and left, paying an exceedingly modest bill of £17.40 (the main dishes plus a bottle of lager and a Diet Coke).

Given it was effectively self-service we didn’t think it appropriate to award a service rating, but it should be said the staff in the cafeteria servery were very helpful and cheery.

When they upgrade the gents loos, it’ll be perfect.

Undercroft Restaurant, Durham Cathedral, Durham City, DH1 3EH

Contact: or call 0191 386 3721

Open: 10am to 4.30pm every day except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and Good Friday; lunch served noon-2pm

Vegetarians catered for. Disabled access.

Food quality: 7 Service: N/A Surroundings 10 Value 7