Saturday, 7 May 2011

Magpie Cafe, Whitby, North Yorks

The English fondness for standing in queues and fish 'n' chips is well documented.  Put them both together and you get the Magpie Cafe, popular purveyors of seafood and a Whitby institution since 1937.

My aunt and uncle had confirmed the Magpie's reputation while we were staying with them a few days before our trip.  They had also confirmed the need for some pre-planning to beat the crowds.  While the Ewing was making the most of the glorious weather, and enjoying the stunning moorland scenery on the drive to Whitby, I was focused on one thing, being outside when they opened the doors at 11.30.  Yes, I know how to relax and have fun on holiday.

For possibly the first time ever we arrived at our destination in plenty of time and could enjoy a jaunt along the pier to work some of our full English off before our early lunch.  Luckily the sea air sharpened our appetites and I was pleased to see that when we got down to the harbourside, fifteen minutes before opening time, that only a small queue had formed in front of us.

In the height of summer the Magpie can expect to see up to a thousand visitors through their doors every day, and they certainly have the efficient service down pat.  A friendly waitress showed us to a little corner table, bathed in bright sunlight, and gave us probably the biggest menu I have ever seen.  'Don't forget the specials board' she called out before returning approximately seven seconds later to take our order.  

We managed to delay her for a for another minute or two by ordering two Slipway ales from the local Captain Cook Brewery, but sensing the queues growing outside we were soon ready to order; to start a Whitby crab salad to share, followed by two haddock, chips and mushy peas.  I was disappointed to miss out on the kippers, smoked by Fortune's in Whitby.  Here they are served with bread, butter and strawberry jam (designed to take the smoky taste away ready for the next course).  Happily I later found a 'kippers by post' stall, down by the fish market, who will deliver vacuum packed pairs of fish all over the country.  

The menu also features a multitude of grilled and poached fish and seafood, stews, pies and soups, as well as a few token meat and veggie dishes for the uninitiated.  For those who can't face the queueing, or prefer to share their spoils with the gulls, an equally busy and good value takeaway has now opened up next door.

The crab was simple and tasty.  Lots of lovely white and brown meat, well picked and served simply with lemon, salad, bread and butter.  Light and refreshing and, as with all things fishy, tastes even better when you can see the sea.

The 'small' haddock followed quickly after.  The Ewing's piece in particular resembled a battered whale, rising up from a great sea of potato.  The fish was super; hot, crisp batter breaking open in a cloud of steam to reveal the big, pearly white flakes of succulent fish.  The chips were decent, although I only managed a paltry few after all the fish, but the mushy peas were fabulous.  The Ewing, not normally a fan of the processed pea, tucked straight in, making me thankful for the generous Yorkshire portions.

Stuffed to the gills after our fish feast we had to pass up on desert.  This was hard as they had all my favourite steamed suspects, including an interesting simnel version which seemed very apt at Easter time.  They also offer the traditional Northern snack of fruit cake/gingerbread and a slice of Wensleydale cheese.  Best enjoyed with a pot of strong Yorkshire tea to wash it all down. 

Overall the Magpie is an institution that manages to live up to its reputation.  Despite dealing with throngs of tourists and locals alike the service was well organised, fast and friendly.  And, while perhaps not the place for a long and lingering lunch, the fish is still fabulous and well worth that wait.

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