The Library, Norwich
If you walk at a relatively brisk pace down Upper St Giles Street towards the lanes, you could easily sail past The Library. But, once spotted, you wonder how you could bypass such an imposing building, set so far back from the main humdrum that it boasts a courtyard bigger than its central location should allow – perfect for enjoying a tipple on a summer’s evening amid Norwich’s gentle buzz.
Opened in 1886 as the UK’s first public subscription library, this gorgeous listed building – with its grand pillars – was destroyed by a fire in 1898 and re-opened in 1914 after a full refurbishment that cost just £1,719. It wasn’t until 2006 that co-directors Nigel and Jayne Raffles took on – and somewhat bravely converted – The Library into a restaurant, bar and grill, with food cooked on a wood-fired flame.
“Being a listed building, we were unable to change any of the internal foundations,” Jayne tells me when I quiz her over the phone about how she managed the conversion. “We kept the original mezzanine, the wood cladding and the floor-to-ceiling book cases, and just added the open kitchen and the toilets.”
It’s the mezzanine that really impresses when you walk into the large, open-plan room – a mid-way floor that wraps around the entire restaurant, hemmed in by a glass balcony and providing a lovely birds-eye view of the floor below. With cosy bank seating admid rows and rows of books, which – Jayne tells me – are generally (and generously) donated by the public, this area is popular with couples looking to enjoy a romantic evening meal or drink. There’s also children’s books for kids with ants in their pants; even sticky mitts are encouraged to leaf through the stock.
Downstairs, seating is a mix of round tables and cushioned perimeter banks, plenty of space allowing tables to be refreshingly spread out – a good job considering the size of the plates coming out of the theatre-style kitchen. To the right is a lounge area with a bar, more books on wood-clad shelves, several brightly-coloured sofas and magazines to leaf through while enjoying a post-dinner coffee or a quick drink before hitting the city for a spot of retail therapy.
With so much wood The Library could’ve been dark and dingy, but Jayne and Nigel have made clever use of mustard yellows, hot pinks, burnt oranges and steely blues to create a contemporary space that’s light and airy. It’s nicely done; even the Christmas decorations are stylish – the tree made out of stacked books. Where there aren’t actual books, there is wallpaper depicting book shelves, ensuring the library theme isn’t lost. Too much? It isn’t, actually.
I’m here to review The Library’s Sunday roast, which is a bit of an oddity considering this British staple is usually the preserve of small, cosy pubs with roaring fires and dogs at your feet. As a roast lover, I’m more than happy to give it a go.
Three Sunday meat choices sit on an extensive menu of flamed-grilled burgers and steaks, fish and chips and chicken dishes with several mid-week offers to entice, including Burger Mondays (wood-fired burgers and a drink for £10.95), Chicken Tuesday (half roasted chicken with fries with drink for £10.95) and Steak Night Date Night Wednesdays (wood-fired rump or sirloin with chips and a bottle of wine for £39.95 per couple).
With an extensive wine list and full menu of cocktails – including a liquid dessert option of Coffee Martini – as well as local ales and International lagers, The Library is a great place for a pre-evening drink before heading out into the heart of Norwich, a mere metre away.
Roast options today include pork, chicken and beef, which I opt for with a glass of Pinot Noir. There’s a separate children’s menu offering a mini roast, fish fingers, pasta and chicken goujons; on the back is an illustration of the outside of The Library – penned by a renowned local artist – that children can colour in using glasses filled with felt tips or pencils. This keeps my four-year-old daughter occupied until her lunch arrives (I’m glad to see that the fish fingers are homemade).
My eyes nearly pop out of my head when my roast arrives – a gargantuan portion, the size of which I rarely see on a Sunday. But, with a child at the table, this ‘all-on-one-plate’ idea (no separate hot dishes filling up your space) is ideal – the only problem is getting through it all without needing to take a small nap under the table afterwards.
The beef is perfectly cooked and tastes like it has been flame grilled, while the Yorkshire pudding is crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle; the cauliflower cheese hearty and gooey. But the real surprise is the cabbage with pancetta, which is a pile of salty, smoky deliciousness (I, erm, detest cabbage!).
A Chocolate Sundae cunningly eyes me up from the dessert menu – an indulgent pud of vanilla and caramel ice cream with chocolate spiral, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, nuts and a wafer (yikes!). Chocolate ice-cream arrives for my young dining partner who has to kneel up on her stool to finish it, napkin firmly wrapped around her neck to save her clean t-shirt (it doesn’t work!).
So, if like me, you think a restaurant can’t do a roast dinner as well as a cosy pub, my advice? Don’t judge a book by its cover!
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Couples, friends and families after a coffee while shopping in Norwich, a quick lunch, an early evening tipple before going out in the city, an evening meal or a Sunday roast.
Not for: Punters with dogs wishing to sit by an open fire.
£-££: Prices are reasonable with roasts at £10.95; deserts around £6.
The Library, 4A Guildhall Hill, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 1JH. Tel: 01603 616606. thelibraryrestaurant.co.uk