Norwich: Ha! Ha! Bar and Canteen

So the food is straightforward modern British fare, with favourites such as fish cakes, bangers, beef stews and mussels, and prices are good, too.

Having a young family is great. And one particular highlight must be meal times. Parents are under pressure these days to have children who'll eat egg curry, wolf down Caeser Salad and be rather partial to duck a la orange.

I certainly enjoy these oh so important cosy meal times where you encourage your youngsters to eat up their broccoli, to actually sit down and stop dancing around the kitchen and to generally quit messing around. It's enough to make you reach for the wine in the fridge - but that's another story.

So, sometimes it's great to have a night off and leave dad in charge. Okay, so you'll have done the shopping and left copious instructions but it's still rather nice to flounce out with the words: “It's all in the fridge, don't forget to bath them and they need to do their reading, too,” as you shut the door firmly behind you.

So it was last weekend. Himself was left holding the baby as I hit the town with a chum.


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Now Tombland in Norwich on a Saturday night isn't for the faint-hearted or indeed the over-40s but we went early so it's wasn't too scary. People were actually fairly respectably dressed - I did spot a couple of girls wearing belts as skirts and I now know the latest trendy haircut for young gents (a haystack) but it's good to get out there and see what's what.

We headed for Ha! Ha! Bar and Canteen where I haven't been for years. I remember being vaguely excited when it opened as, like the Slug and Lettuce, it was another fashionable chain finally arriving in our Fine City.

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It's a youngish place but not too intimidating for it. Certainly the interior is accessible with all the usual stripped wooden floors, huge mirrors, comfy sofas, and bistro tables and chairs. Neutral shades with those oh so vital splashes of colour are somehow comforting and the big picture windows allow you to watch the world go by.

The staff are fresh faced but friendly with it and efficient which, to be honest, is more than you can say for many similar places in the city centre.

You can eat in the bar area but we opted for the restaurant which is slightly more formal.

You wouldn't, with the best will in the world, expect fine cuisine - despite all the OTT claims made on their website and publicity literature. Quite why many foodie companies do that is beyond me. If you're Gordon Ramsay and sourcing the finest ingredients from around the world, then maybe you can get away with wildly extravagant literature but the majority of places simply can't.

So the food is straightforward modern British fare, with favourites such as fish cakes, bangers, beef stews and mussels, and prices are good, too, with most main courses around the £8 to £9 mark. There were plenty of dishes I could have chosen but I eventually went for roasted halibut with a tomato crust on wilted spinach with chive mash at £7.50.

The fish was firm, a good colour and a good smell which is always a reassuring sign. It wasn't over-powered by the tomato topping and the mash was pleasant enough, too.

My friend, escaping a husband with a cold (yes, we can all appreciate that), went for fish cakes, winter coleslaw and leaves at £7.25. Again, all disappeared quickly and she, nothing to do with me you understand, ordered a side order of fat chips which were pretty naughty but we managed to see them off.

We both went for pistachio crème brulee at £3.95 (warm brownies with vanilla ice cream were another possibility) which were good and, like our main courses, better than we imagined.

All the food was helped by a bottle of Italian Pinot Grigo Blush at £15.50 although there's seeming everything from peppermint tea to organic ale on offer.

Lunch sees a slightly different menu with wraps, burgers and even a posh fish finger sarnie which doesn't sound possible while brunch is fun, especially if you like a spot of egg and chips. Eggy bread, porridge and a “huge breakfast” are other options for those in need of the hair of the dog.

So this is a fun place where life isn't taken too seriously. Perfect, in fact, for stressed out mums who need someone to cook for them, serve up a glass or two of wine and do it all with a smile, too.

t Ha!Ha! Bar and Canteen, Tombland, Norwich; 01603 621223; www.hahaonline.co.uk

t Should I book? Always recommended.

t Where do you park? St Andrew's multi-storey car park is a safe choice.

t What about children? Always welcome but there are no particular facilities such as a children's menu or highchairs. Under 18s are allowed in the restaurant until 6pm.

t What about vegetarians? Plenty of choice, with seasonal specials

t Anything else? There's live music every Thursday evening.

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