The Magpie Cafe is no ordinary fish and chip shop.
It’s 11.30am – opening time for what’s regarded by many as the world’s best fish ‘n chip restaurant. And within the next half-an-hour the restaurant is packed to the rafters, while outside there’s a queue up to 50 metres long, where Features Editor, John Newton is waiting patiently to get a table.
This is the acclaimed Magpie Café, circa 1750, on Pier Road (fish ‘n chip alley) along the quayside at Whitby in North Yorkshire, from where Captain James Cook made his first voyage aboard a local collier boat, a bulk carrier vessel designed to carry coal.
Whitby is the fish ‘n chip capital of England, with countless outlets running down the quayside, where hundreds of bloated seagulls gather to try to steal their daily food ration from unsuspecting tourists - and the rubbish bins.
The Magpie Cafe is no ordinary fish and chip shop.
It’s the Ritz of fish ‘chip restaurants, where you can get a glass of fine wine to wash down Britain’s favourite dish that is still wrapped in newspaper at some of the country’s 11, 000 ‘chippies’.
If you are a fish aficionado, you’ll find a variety on offer like no other. And its sales are staggering – the restaurant serves up between 800 and 900 meals a day, while the take-away downstairs does a similar business between 11-30am and 9pm, seven days a week (except December 25 this year and January 5 to 30 in 2015).
From turbot and Dover sole to lemon sole and halibut, the Magpie has the lot. But the biggest seller is haddock and chips, known locally as whale and chips, because of the portion - more often than not overhanging the plate!
The couple behind the thriving business are Ian Robson, who oversees all operations, and Alison Slater, the front house manager. But the Magpie doesn’t have a string of awards like one of its competitors down the road, the Quayside, which last year won the best UK fish ‘n chip shop trophy.
“That’s because we can’t enter a UK national competition for best fish ‘n chips, because you have to use certain products that we don’t use, like frozen fish or a chemical preservative on our chips” said Robson. “We only use fresh fish, the most popular of which are cod and haddock from the North Sea – caught by British fishing boats and landed in British ports.”
“We serve between 13-15 varieties of fish, including Whitby/Scarborough woof or sea cat. Whitby lobster (crayfish) and crab dishes are also on the menu.
Robson describes sea cat as somewhere between cod and haddock in the flavour department – very good for grilling.
The Magpie, which employs a staff of 92, including eight chefs and six fish fryers, stands out from the rest with the distinctive black and white three-storey building overlooking the harbour in the historic port.
It’s also a haven for many celebrities, including UK chef guru Rick Stein, actor Julie Walters and many of the cast from the Heartbeat TV series.
A former production manager at a plastics factory in Whitby, Robson made a life-changing decision in 1979 to begin a new career in pursuit of his first love – good food.
A minimum of two days are needed to see the attractions in and around Whitby. These include:
* Captain Cook Memorial Museum (www.cookmuseumwhitby.co.uk);
* North Yorkshire Moors Railway –climb aboard a steam train (www.nymr.co.uk);
* World of James Herriott – the museum covers his life and books of the veterinarian and author (www.worldofjamesherriott.co.org);
* North York Moors National Park (www.northyorkmoors.org.uk/events;
* North Yorkshire Moors Railway (www.nymr.co,uk); and
* The 199 steps which go up to the Parish Church and the Abbey – the foundations of the latter date back to the 11the century;
Place to stay: The Postgate Inn (www.postgateinn.com) at Egton Bridge, 10 kilometres from Whitby. The inn, which has three bedrooms for guests, is located near the North Yorkshire Moors and has featured in episodes of the TV series - Heartbeat. Built during work on the Middleborough-Whitby railway, the inn is full of character with jovial mine host, Mark Powell, pulling real ales and the busy restaurant serving up top-notch dishes. It’s named after the Venerable Nicholas Postgate (Father Postgate), who was persecuted for his faith and was one of the last martyrs, having been hung, drawn and quartered at York in 1679.
The second edition of The Magpie Café cook book by Ian Robson and co-author, Paul Gildroy - who’s the driving force behind the Magpie’s ‘engine room’- is now available: Go to www.magpiecafe.co.uk
Apart from its fish ‘n chips, Whitby is also renowned for Whitby Jet – semi-precious stone jewellery made famous by Queen Victoria when she went into mourning for her husband. Prince Albert. The jet is of early Jurassic (Toarcian) age - about 182 million years old – and is the fossilised wood from species similar to the extant Monkey Puzzle tree.
The Magpie Café recently celebrated 34 years of continuous entries in Britain’s premier food guide – The Good Food Guide.
Extra images by Mark Denton Photogtaphic