THE omens were not good as we walked into the bar of the Bay House in Brandon. Gloomy and unloved, it was a tired and unwelcoming space.

It looked as if it hadn’t changed much since Brandon’s pit closed in 1968. Full of thirsty post-shift miners, it would have been full of atmosphere. The evening we called it was just sad and cold.

We almost turned on our heels and made a quick exit but then spotted a chalkboard on a bar pillar – “Tino’s Italian”, it said, and was what we were looking for, having heard decent reports of this relatively new venture. Back out to the rear, past the loos (more of which later) and through a doorway beckoned a rather more appealing vista.

Tino’s Italian is just one room to the rear of the pub but it has been transformed into a bright, smart and comfortable dining area with sage green and white walls, laminate floors and downlighters to create a contemporary space in total contrast to the pub. The fresh freesias, crisp white table linen and the welcome warmth from the radiators added to the transformative feeling of well being.

It was early and initially we were the only diners. Our waitress was a friendly delight, promptly serving us drinks and providing menus and, following our request, nudging the slightly intrusive musak down a notch.

A wide range of pizza and pasta dishes was offered for £6-7 but there were also chicken dishes, steaks and salads. Starters included perennial favourites like bruschetta, garlic bread, risotto balls and garlic mushrooms.

Our choices arrived swiftly. Sylvia’s gamberoni were four plump medium-sized prawns fried in a garlic, white wine and herb sauce, served on rosemary and sea salt crostini with a garnish of fried onion, chilli and wilted leaves. They might have struggled to meet most people’s criteria for king prawns, as billed in the menu description, but they were well cooked and at just £4.50 very reasonable.

My fegatini (chicken livers) had been sautéed with white wine, onions, mushrooms and chilli (chilli was a recurring theme at Tinos) and served with some melba toast. Again the cooking technique was very good with the livers just retaining a trace of pinkness but the dish was let down by the livers not being trimmed carefully enough. The stray sinews spoilt a dish which was again bargain basement price-wise at £3.50.

Sylvia’s 8oz sirloin steak, described as 28-day aged, was tender certainly, but slightly overcooked beyond the requested medium. Flavour-wise it was OK but nothing special. Served with very good, dry and crisp chips, tomato, flat-cap mushroom and caramelised shallots, it was just £12.50. There will not be many other restaurants in the North-East serving 8oz sirloins so cheaply. Admittedly, had Sylvia wanted a sauce with that (Diane, peppercorn, blue cheese or Bernaise) it would pumped the price up to £14 but that’s still a steal.

My tagliatelle Marinara was a disappointment – even at £6.50. It was by no means disastrous but nothing about it was remotely special. Firstly, the pasta was a little overcooked. Secondly, the tomato base for the sauce was overly sweet and, thirdly, the seafood elements of the sauce were poor – four minuscule mussels, one chunk of overcooked salmon and a couple of the questionably proportioned “king” prawns which featured in Sylvia’s starter. The squid rings were rubbery to the point of being almost inedible.

Both starters and mains dishes were substantial dishes which left no room for dessert. Had we been able to manage one we could have chosen from tiramisu and crème brulee (£3.50), cheesecake (£3.75) or a cheeseboard (£5).

A couple of soft drinks added just £2.40 to the overall bill of £29.40. It would have been very good value with just a little more care in the preparation.

Something has be done about the rest of the pub if Tino’s is going to attract discerning diners. Apart of the down-at-heel bar, the gents toilets were grim in a way only gents toilets out the back of seen-better-days pubs can be. Sylvia didn’t risk the ladies.

FOOD FACTS

The Bay Horse, 8 Brandon Lane, Brandon, Durham DH7 8ST

Tel: 0191-378-0498

Web: tinosdurham.co.uk (site under construction)

Monday to Thursday noon to 2.30pm and 5pm to 9.30pm, Saturday noon to 9pm

Ratings (out of ten): Food 6, Service 8, Surroundings 8, Value 9