AFTER a sleepy start to an unseasonably warm Good Friday (clearly no-one had told the weatherman it was a Bank Holiday weekend), my wife and I were looking for a family-friendly restaurant where we could enjoy a pleasant lunch in the company of our six-month-old.

Frankie and Benny’s fitted the bill perfectly.

Having navigated the busy Bank Holiday traffic round Pity Me and nabbed a space in the ever-packed Arnison Centre car park, I opened the door at the newly-built and newly-opened Italian restaurant and bar and was suddenly very grateful Sarah had called ahead to book, even if it was only a couple of hours in advance.

It seemed every family with young children in the Durham area had chosen F&B’s as their Friday lunchtime chow down.

It felt like we had unwittingly stumbled upon something everyone else in the world was doing and we simply knew nothing about.

Guests who had not had the benefit of my wonderful wife’s fantastic forethought were being asked to wait at the bar, or simply having to give up and look elsewhere for their sustenance.

Although apparently the message that we were bringing a baby hadn’t translated into a high chair being reserved, a table was waiting for us and a very helpful waitress came to our aid by locating and assembling an ingenious child seat which clamped to the table, allowing our littl’un to sit with us quite happily.

So on to the food.

As a Frankie and Benny’s virgin, and one who struggles with extensive menus at the best of times, I turned to Sarah, previously an occasional visitor to one of the chain’s other locations, to help me narrow my options.

We decided to dine from the Specials Menu, which offers a range of main courses for £9.95 and the option to add a starter or dessert for £2 each.

We shared a Cheddar and Bacon Skins starter, which was appropriately sized but deceptively filling. It had been a long time since breakfast, so I wolfed my half-potato of the two down, enjoying lashings of the sour cream side.

My immediate hunger allayed, I could take in the surroundings a little more. The high-ceilinged dining room is packed with booth-style tables, none of which were unoccupied for more than a few minutes at a time during our visit.

From where I was seated, I had a clear view into the kitchen, where two or three chefs worked at breakneck speed to keep the dozens of diners satisfied.

It was quite an operation to behold – and seemingly well organised; with a smartly dressed man apparently in charge of organising the food as it came from the kitchen and awaited delivery to its table and each member of the waiting staff having a clear area of responsibility within the dining area.

But despite all that, we waited more than an hour for our main courses to arrive – a disappointment that would both mean we ran out of time for dessert and were given 25 per cent off our bill.

For main, Sarah chose the Chicken and Chorizo Gnocchi and I plumped for the Spicy Sausage Calzone and we both agreed to swap dishes half-way through.

With the bambino teasing, hair-brushing, ol’ Italian atmosphere, it seemed appropriate to adopt such a share and share alike policy.

The gnocchi, to which I am a recent convert, was nicely light and pleasantly spiced; offset with a side of garlic ciabatta.

The calzone lived up to its menu description as “Frankie’s Fieriest!”, but was not overly hot, so long as you had a glass of something cold close to hand to douse the fire.

As I said, the relentless march of the clock prevented us from sampling the dessert menu – a development I found particularly upsetting as it included salted caramel sticky toffee pudding.

But the staff were extremely, and genuinely, apologetic – apparently coping with their busiest sitting since opening a few weeks before.

The most bizarre moment of our visit came, I hesitate to reveal, during a pre-exit visit to the male facilities, when I found a Linguaphone-style recording helping me brush up on my Italian while I freshened up.

That aside, the experience was everything I had expected it would be. Frankie and Benny’s at lunchtime is not the spot for a romantic date. It’s quite possible you’ll get Bolognese sauce catapulted towards you by a child at a neighbouring table.

But if you’re looking for a place to take the family, with decent food and good portions at a reasonable price, then I’d recommend it.

Frankie and Benny’s, Unit K, Arnison Retail Park, Pity Me, Tel: 0191-384-4141 Web: frankieandbennys.com

Open: Monday to Saturday, 8am to 11pm; Sundays 8am to 10.30pm

Ratings (out of 10): Food quality 7 Service 6 Surroundings 7 Value 8