WITH a quarter of a million visitors annually, twenty-two awards in the cheese and dairy section at the Yorkshire show this year, and a recent £5 million refurbishment, what could possibly go wrong with a visit to one significant corner of the Wensleydale Creamery’s empire in Hawes, Calvert’s restaurant?

We’d made plans for Sunday lunch there with friends. I hadn't given a thought to doing a restaurant review: it would be good to enjoy a social occasion without having to think about work, which most of the time when you’re reporting in a small area, is difficult.

But just before we left the house, a national newspaper headline caught my eye: “Gritted teeth behind service with a smile,” it read, raising the spectre of not just bored but angry customer service staff wanting to wallop customers and colleagues alike, because their employer forced them to smile, no matter what.

Heck. I had to check this one out.

We were greeted with a smile - or was it a grimace? - by an apparently cheerful waitress who had come to welcome us in double quick time. Not a hint of a bored saunter. . .

Was she really, deep down, feeling “cynical and exhausted,” ready to direct her aggression at us, or her colleagues or “subordinates,” as - apparently - the research referred to had shown they inevitably do?

If so, she was hiding it well, though who knew what was going on behind those swinging doors into the kitchen, from where emerged a succession of fast-moving, smiley waitresses - are we allowed to even call them that any more in a world devoid of actresses and air hostesses? - all, apparently, assigned a different task: one to greet, one to serve the drinks, one the food, one to clear and so on.

“It’s how we do it here,” said a cheerful employee (better be on the safe side) with a distinctly non-aggressive smile, showing no sign of cynicism or even exhaustion which, given the numbers they were dealing with, would have been no surprise. “We all do a different bit of the job. It means you get more smiles from more faces.” (Had she, too, read that headline?)

“I suppose it also means that if you get a table full of awkward customers you can share the pain,” I ventured.

The response came quick as flash: “Not at all! We don’t get any awkward customers here.” I bet.

Good staff being, to me, 70 per cent of the deal in any establishment, even before the starter arrived I was feeling well-disposed.

Mine was roast onion soup with Wensleydale cheese, the latter served grated in a little pot with croutons on the side: presentation isn’t quite all but like happy staff it augers well. Two others in our four-strong party had haddock, smoked bacon and cheese fishcakes, so big they could easily have been a main, apparently tasting of not much more than fish but the bacon giving it texture.

Then to the carvery, a Sunday phenomenon at Calvert’s: what a quaint, old-fashioned, safe and comfortingly English thing it is. Just looking at its gleaming glazed carrots, shiny red cabbage (it’s the only time I ever see the stuff, anywhere), courgettes (which to me are always courgettes, nothing more to say about them) and golden cauliflower cheese, to accompany the home-grown (Nigel Hammond of Bainbridge) succulent roast beef and pork, makes me feel - well, English. And a bit middle-aged. Which at ?? I’m definitely edging towards.

The meat was cooked to perfection, the veg - amazingly and unusually in my experience elsewhere - not overdone, and the Yorkshire puddings enormous but, sad to say, a bit disappointing. In Yorkshire of all places you have to get this right, but carveries generally don’t and this one was no exception: they just stand too long on the hotplate. Perhaps they could revive the Yorkshire tradition of serving it as a first course with gravy, to fill you up so you eat less meat? Or maybe not.

“You could sole your shoes with it,” I say grumpily, and probably exaggeratedly, but my husband, a forgiving man, especially when food is around, disagrees. “It’s just a bit tough, but there’s plenty of it,” he says, and finishes mine for good measure.

You can choose starters and desserts from the board, or order from the ordinary menu, and the prices are reasonable by today’s standards: £10.95 for one course, £14.95 for two, £16.95 for three or a small main for £7.95. There are veggie and gluten-free mains available, and you can choose from the ordinary menu, which itself offers a remarkably varied array of vegetarian options - not the token mushroom stroganoff or margherita pizza of so many lesser restaurants.

Service was amazingly fast considering how busy it was, and we weren’t left to contemplate dirty plates for days on end between courses. If there is a criticism, and there’s not much, it’s that the decor feels a bit old-fashioned, but that’s a personal view. Ian says the metal ceiling supports make it look like a shed (I’m surprised he looked up from his food long enough to notice) but I rather like them: they serve a purpose and look quite utilitarian which is a look I’d like to see reflected in the restaurant itself. But I realise that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

It was, all in all, a lovely eating experience. The food was excellent - and local - and the smiles, I’m sure, were genuine. I don't think you can train people to be nice, and if that’s what they have done then please pass on the secret to others who from my experience of customer service are in urgent need.

The Creamery is surely one of the Dales’s greatest assets. It pulls in visitors at a rate of knots, never sits still for a minute but continues to add, innovate and surprise, and somehow just gets it right. I still have a memory of an assistant in the gift shop, painstakingly placing and replacing stuff as she made up a hamper for me in the middle of a pre-Christmas rush.

“That’ll do,” I said, conscious of her time and effort. “No. It’s not quite symmetrical,” she said. “I like things right.”

She did, too. And so, clearly, do her colleagues in Calvert's.


Wensleydale Creamery, Gayle Lane, Hawes, Wensleydale, North Yorkshire, DL8 3RN

Telephone: 01969 667664

Email: creamery@wensleydale.co.uk

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 9, Service 10, Surroundings 8, Value 10