“ Address: 17 Hallgarth Street / Durham DH1 3AT „
Although it attracts visitors from all over the world, Durham is actually not great when it comes to international foods. It has multiple cafes, plenty of chain outlets and far too many Indian restaurants, but only little else. El Coto seeks to redress that balance by providing authentic Spanish tapas.
El Coto is very much one of those places that you need to know about to be able to find. Located up near the University buildings in one of the smaller streets of Durham, it's well off the usual tourist track. It's about 5-10 minutes' walk from the main city centre and if you didn't know it was there, you would never think to go and look. Parking can also be a bit of an issue as the restaurant has no car park of its own and on-street parking tends to be pay and display, although it is free after 6pm.
Even once you know it is there, El Coto is not the most obvious place to spot. It's located at the end of what appears to be a row of ordinary terraced houses and is fairly low key in advertising itself (a sign hanging over the door is the only obvious sign). Had I not gone with Mrs SWSt (who had been before), it's quite possible I would have walked straight past.
This unassuming approach continues inside with a very basic, rustic feel to the restaurant. A pleasant bar/waiting area is immediately inside the door, whilst further back, tables are laid out to suit parties of all different sizes. Smaller tables (for between 2-12 people) tend to be downstairs, whilst another room upstairs is laid out for bigger groups. Tables are fairly basic wooden affairs with no table cloths, but this lack of fussiness appealed to me and added to the charm of the place. Tables are also reasonably well spaced so that even when it is busy, you don't feel that you are right on top of people at neighbouring tables, although the relatively open plan nature of the place does mean that it can get noisy if big groups are in.
The menu is a typical Spanish menu with in excess of 30 different dishes listed, together with a brief explanation of what each dish contains. There is a really nice range and a Gluten-free version is even available. As with the décor, the menu is fairly basic in design but this unfussy approach helps make it easier to read. The two biggest problems concern choosing what you are going to have and then pronouncing their names when the waiter arrives!
Being a Spanish restaurant, there is a fairly relaxed attitude to serving. Dishes take different amounts of time to prepare and cook and simply arrive at the table when they are ready. Unlike British restaurants, there is no waiting around until the full order is ready before it is served. This makes for a very pleasant dining experience as you can eat more slowly and pick at whatever dish you choose.
We have been to El Coto several times in the past few months and in that time have tried a significant number of the dishes on their menu. Without exception, the food has been excellent. It is very obviously freshly cooked and arrives at the table piping hot, remaining hot for a surprisingly long time. Each of the dishes we have tried is full of flavour and the meat dishes have huge chunks of (identifiable!) meat with very little fat or gristle. The biggest problem we faced was deciding what to eat next, as everything looked (and was) very appealing.
Portions were just the right size. We ordered 8 different dishes between us and ate pretty much everything bar a few scrapings. Each portion contains more than enough to share so you don't feel like you are stealing from someone else's order by digging in and helping yourself!
The biggest issue we find is that you only get one plate. Some of the dishes have quite a lot of sauce, which can then cause a bit of a mess on your plate and cause other foods to taste of that dish. It would be nice if perhaps you got a couple of plates - but that's just me being ultra-picky and trying to find something negative to say about a place I really like!
Service is also excellent: quick and efficient and friendly. Menus and drinks were quickly supplied once we were at our table and we were then left alone to look at the extensive list of dishes on the menu. When we were ready, our order was taken with minimum amount of fuss and done very efficiently. This level of service continued throughout the evening. Staff returned on a regular basis to check if we were happy, needed any more drinks or to remove empty plates for us (to give us more room to attack the remaining dishes), but did not intrude. We encountered two different staff on the evening and both were pleasant and friendly, without being over-the-top. Once we had finished our meal, we were left alone to chat and didn't feel rushed to pay up and go (El Coto does have a nominal two hour limit on tables booked prior to 7pm, but there was no sign of them enforcing this on the evening we went).
Price-wise, El Coto always comes as a rather pleasant surprise. For the amount and quality of food you get, I always expect it to come to a lot more than it does. On the occasion we had 8 dishes, for example, the total bill (including food, drinks and coffee) was £40 which we felt represented very good value for money. The equivalent meal at our favourite Indian or Chinese restaurant would cost a good £10-15 more.
El Coto might not be the easiest place to find, but it's well worth making the effort. And once you've discovered it, you'll definitely go back!
0191 384 4007
© copyright SWSt 2012