Norwich: The Library

The Library offers the unique opportunity to browse something more unusual than the menu as well as enjoy excellent food. ROWAN MANTELL feels she's already overdue another visit.

It's the first time I'd read a book about livestock auctions between courses, and it will probably be the last. It was also the first time I'd visited The Library, but it definitely won't be the last.

One of the (many) joys of this city centre restaurant is that several of its tables are set into alcoves formed by huge polished wood bookcases. And the range of the books is so wide that next time I visit, and my husband abandons me at the table, I'll be able to choose a different story (or a different spouse.) This one was old and leathery and not the kind of thing I'd usually pick up (the book, not the husband) but I like to try something different from what I'd have at home when eating out.

The books were just one of the many aspects of The Library I loved.

It's an odd name for a restaurant -— until you realise that The Library was once exactly that. Indeed the handsome building in its tranquil courtyard was still home to tens of thousands of books through until the 1970s. Today, what was once one of the oldest public libraries in the country celebrates its literary heritage, but there is no heavy-handed theming.

The lovely wooden book-cases are an integral part of the design, forming cosy booths for diners, but The Library has resisted any temptation to begin the menu with prologues rather than starters, or list dishes using the dewey decimal system.

Instead the food is simply excellent. A parade of mighty burgers was served to one table with a flourish. These are so far from fast food that there is a note on the menu to warn of a 20 minute wait – and they looked well worth waiting for. Elsewhere on the menu there are elaborate-sounding risottos, good rustic meat dishes served with fancy mash and several veggies, syllabubs, salads and tasting platters.

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The Library has an a la carte menu with 12 choices of starters alone, plus set lunches, a burger menu, a special week-day burger hour and a 'Chill on a Sunday' lunch.

We ate from the set lunch menu which offered three choices of starters, mains and desserts - for �6.95 for one course, �9.45 for two and �11.95 for all three.

The menu was imaginative, wide-ranging, more than competently cooked and attractively presented. It was certainly enough to make the leap from two courses to three a no-brainer. Add in the surroundings — ornate lofty ceilings, classical pillars, a gallery, polished wooden panelling and bookcases, elegant yet comfy seats and bold and bright art work and the The Library becomes a bit of a gem.

We ate gnocchi with butternut squash puree — comfort food with a dash of the exotic — and a hearty curry. The starters were small but perfectly formed concoctions of roasted red peppers and aubergine for me, and parma ham for my husband; the desserts include a cheese board complete with celery and grapes and home-made chutney– very unusual at the more affordable end of restaurant prices.

The set meals change frequently. This week The Library was offering a chicken and white bean terrine with pear chutney as a starter choice, battered sea bass or fennel risotto as mains options and two elaborate fruity desserts or the cheeseboard for afters.

On a sunny day, notwithstanding the striking architecture of the main restaurant, the courtyard tables and chairs look particularly appealing. However, we were won over by the chance to sit in classical splendour, amid the classics, indoors. There were a couple of long waits (or opportunities to browse the book-shelves) between courses and a slight mix-up with the bill but the staff were constantly charming.

Little, but significant, touches included being brought a jug of iced tap water, without having to ask.

The waiting staff appeared to genuinely enjoy their jobs – it was service with a smile and a bit of chat – enhancing even further, the atmosphere of the restaurant.

In my book this library is something to shout about.

The Library

Guildhall Hill


01603 616606

Open: Open for lunch and dinner Monday to Friday, all day on Saturday, 12pm-3pm on Sunday.

Prices: Starters from �4.25, mains from �8.95, three-course set menu �24.95

Vegetarian options: Plenty

Wheelchair access: Yes