Successful restaurants are as integral a part of any rural, suburban or city scape as any ancient hedgerow, church or off-licence.
Think of Portaferry and then try not to think of the Portaferry Hotel. Likewise, Gilford has the Pot Belly, Enniskillen Franco’s and Larne Billy Andy’s.
In Killylea, Co Armagh, the torch-bearer is Digby’s. Killylea is not famous for very much. This year the town, which nestles among some of the most graceful drumlin country and richest agricultural land, hosted the country’s main Orange parades. But apart from that and the Boxing Day Killylea Hunt, people from Armagh largely drive past the small village on their way to visit their poorer relatives in Tyrone, which is only a couple of miles down the road.
Digby’s has been going for generations, serving pints to anyone with a clean shirt and good manners. It’s a proper social hub whose regulars don’t act all weird when city slickers from Armagh come in and ask for the menu. People around here sometimes would wonder what kind of cretin you are wanting a menu when all you have to do is ask for your dinner. But not in Digby’s. Because while this place’s heart still lives in pre-partition days, the food and service are equally old school, quality-conscious and very simple.
You enter the place through a small door from the main street into the bar. The dark wood, the booths and warm, country-living interior is just what you’d hoped for. It’s comfortable and conducive to a sit-down and a bit of quiet craic. The restaurant is at the back. A plain room with wild wallpaper and soft light is clean and oddly attractive.
Floor staff are bright, smiling, reserved and bear all that dignity you only find in the country. It’s a cross between wisdom and humour and a sense of judgement that never imposes. The menu is straightforward and reads like my childhood visits to hotel restaurants almost 50 years ago. There’s melon, prawn cocktails, Irish beef and Mourne lamb.
My heart sinks and I brace myself for a boring Sunday afternoon; only my mother is here to lift the mood. She wanted to come here. I didn’t.
Anyway, a bottle of Rioja is ordered, the starters arrive and, slowly, my huffy hissiness rises and transforms into delight and, sure, isn’t this great altogether? Just you and me and this crumbling dark wheaten bread with butter and the lush little prawns perched proudly on a bed of lettuce in a proper big wine glass. And life is truly fabulous. There’s a fresh lightness to the type of prawns which you’ve eaten a thousand times and yet still have that magnetic pull. This is not a disappointing version at all and the delight starts to raise expectations for what’s next.
We’ve ordered the beef and the lamb. My depression returns with a bump. They arrive accompanied by the support act we have grown to loathe and despise: a roastie, a cup-sized Yorkshire pudding, some cabbage, carrots and plain cauliflower. There is a bowl of mash on the side. And there’s a gravy boat.
Yet when the knife goes through the thick slices of beef, which has been slow roasted to medium and not overdone, the tenderness comes as a surprise. This may not be the first priority in judging beef but it’s a distinctly positive signal. The accompanying gravy is dark and inviting and the first mouthful reveals a very fine set of flavours and textures that are completely unexpected. The problem with these roasts usually is that by the time you get to them, the flavours have been heated out of them. Not here. The meat has a deep, broad taste and just a tiny hint of tanginess.
My mother’s lamb is equally impressive. Plenty of it and, again, full-flavoured, breathy, tender and rich. We are neither of us fussy eaters and she always loved the old-fashioned stuff (she is a formidable cook herself, and French, and it always staggers me that she enjoys this plain food so much) so when we approach the vegetables we don’t expect fireworks. Yet again, the surprises of flavours and textures are there. The usual boil-it-all-for-five-hours techniques have been abandoned in favour of the just-in-time approach. This means the cabbage is bright, verdant and crunchy; the carrots are buttery and with enough fibre to remain intact and yet soft enough to melt a bit in the mouth. The cauliflower has a little hollandaise and looks the part and it resists just the right amount to the knife. The Yorkshire pudding is crisp and light with softness and, with that gravy, proves to be the best I’ve ever had.
Both of us are so pleased the lunch has turned out so well we are surprised to find the place suddenly packed with families. Four tables have three generations each with the same high chairs and their own unsteady grannies. The hum is good-natured and there are as many pints of stout as there are of orange squash on the tables. I see three glasses of sherry being served to the back.
It’s just such a perfect scene. This is what it’s all about, I suggest to my mum. Sitting round a table getting fed decent food and being fed with your family by people who care that you’re having a good time.
A baked Alaska for my mother and Bramley apple tart for me close the show with a big-hitter finale. The baked Alaska is mountainous but it’s also flawless, light and, even if there’s been a bit of cheating with torch lights, it’s a wonder.
If our culinary tradition is slim, what we have is transformed by Digby’s into something close to heavenly.
Sunday lunch x 2 £33.90
Beronia Rioja £16.95
53 Main St, Killylea, Co Armagh BT60 4LS
Tel: 028 3756 8330.