VENERABLE institutions are difficult things to handle. Places that are defined by their history can be a challenge to bring into the modern age.

When The Morritt Arms at Greta Bridge last changed hands just over 20 years ago, the new owners took on a much-loved if rather down-at-heel country house hotel.

The Morritt Arms was and is loved because it is part of the local fabric. For generations of dale folk, it has been the place for family occasions, weddings, wakes, anniversary parties, farmers’ balls and other milestone events. Few local people will not have attended an event here.

Gradually, since 1994, Barbara-Anne Johnson and Peter Philips have dragged this grand old lady of Teesdale into the 21st century, respecting and retaining the traditional feel of the old coaching inn built in the 17th century while introducing the facilities and ambience to appeal to the discerning modern customer.

So there has been refurbishment, the addition of a garden room on the end of the ballroom, the opening of a spa in the hotel’s old garage, conversion of the dining room into Gilroy’s restaurant – awarded two AA rosettes in 2013 – and somewhere along the way the loss of the Arms. It is now just The Morritt.

Over the years we have attended countless functions (farmers’ balls, weddings, anniversaries etc) at The Morritt but never visited simply to dine.

On a recent Sunday, we tried the lunch offer in Gilroy’s, the restaurant named after the artist responsible for the famous 1940s Dickensian-themed murals in the hotel’s Dickens Bar (inevitably, like almost all old buildings in Teesdale, the Morritt has a Dickens connection).

We were served our pre-lunch drinks from the Dickens Bar and although the murals and the range of real ales are without doubt splendiferous the bar couldn’t manage a Campari and soda. There may not be much call for Campari in historic Dales coaching inns.

The Gilroy Sunday lunch menu is however, comprehensive in providing the traditional fare plus something for vegetarians and those who prefer fish. The wine list does a good range of wines by the glass.

We took our places in the oak panelled dining room, remembering the last time we had eaten there – a particularly riotous office Christmas party – and thinking what a sombre space it was. It has been freshened up considerably since then with some contemporary art works on the walls which doesn’t look out of place.

The ambience was also improved – this is quite something really given most places get it horribly wrong most of the time – by the background music at the appropriate discreet volume and the right sort of thing for a Sunday – Marvin Gaye in his reflective What’s Going On period, Bill Withers etc.

And Sylvia approved of the crisp linen, fine glassware and tableware, precisely laid out in formal style. All very correct, as were the serving staff in seeing to our drinks and water.

Starters were top drawer and prettily presented. Sylvia’s ham hock and Wensleydale cheese ballotine was a salty, piquant pork collar wrapped round the herby cheese filling, in turn surrounded with slivers of pickled gherkin and beautifully soft-yolked and crispy coated quail’s egg. Sylvia loved the ballotine but she raved about the egg.

My salmon and crab tian was a zesty fresh melange of smoked salmon and white crab meat bound together with crème fraiche. A caper dressing added a welcome touch of acidity to cut through the creaminess of the tian.

Our roast meats were equally good. When somewhere is able to serve roast beef pink or well done, you know it is taking Sunday lunch seriously. My sirloin was thickly cut, pink without being bloody and lean but with just enough fat to keep it nicely moist. The flavour was superb.

Sylvia’s leg of lamb, although obviously not new season, was surprisingly mild and delicately flavoured and very tender.

All the traditional trimmings were of a similar standard. Perfectly cooked, firm vegetables – savoy, green beans, mashed carrot – good crispy roasties, some creamy buttery mash with my beef. The Yorkshire pudding was OK if not quite as light and puffy as it might have been. The horseradish sauce was breathtakingly hot.

I finished with rum baba which was again beautifully presented. The lightest of yeast cakes was soaked with rum (with extra rum in a little pipette – a bit of a cheffy touch that) and surrounded with pieces of exotic fruit (mango, blood orange, melon) coconut and lime ice cream with a little coriander. It tasted as good as it looked.

Service was very, very attentive – any more so and it might have been obtrusive – but it was always correct and proper without being stiff. The maitre d’ was particularly professional and adept.

Our bill with two pre-prandial snifters, a glass of house red, a small individual bottle of Prosecco and one two-course meal (£16) and a three-course meal (£19) came to £55 – good value for a superior Sunday lunch experience in splendid surroundings.

The Morritt, Greta Bridge, near Barnard Castle. County Durham DL12 9SE
Tel: 01833 627232 Web: themorritt.co.uk

Sunday lunch served noon-3pm
Vegetarian options. Disabled access

 

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 9 Surroundings 9 Service 10 Value 9