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Our Rural Correspondent heads north
for jet & fish: A visit to Whitby.

And so to Whitby on the east (and only) coast of Yorkshire, hard by the glorious North York Moors. It is an old town that, give or take some garish amusement arcades near the harbour wall, remains unspoilt by development.

Whitby lies at the mouth of the River Esk below the dominating ruins of St Hilda’s Abbey, scene of the Synod of Whitby a mere 1400 or so years back. Apart from the synod, which took important decisions about the timing of Easter, the town is famous for its Captain Cook connections--a statue high above the estuary supplies a welcome perch for the weary seagull--and its association with Dracula. A plaque on a house in the Royal Crescent commemorates Bram Stoker’s visits to the town in the 1890s. Not far away another plaque marks the house where, a few decades earlier, Lewis Carroll holidayed.


Dracula might not have lingered in Whitby--he alighted there from a ship en route between points east and London where he wreaked havoc before encountering his nemesis, Professor van Helsing--but his influence remains in the tourist industry, on which many local people depend for their livelihoods. The old whaling and shipbuilding industries have deserted Whitby but a fishing fleet lingers, to provide employment for a few.


The jet industry provides income for another small band. Jet is a semi-precious black, in fact jet black, mineral. Found in crumbling cliff faces and on beaches, it comprises the fossilised remains of the auricaria (monkey puzzle) tree and can be crafted into jewellery. It was perfect for legions of Victorian mourners; Prince Albert’s early death in 1861 and the Queen’s protracted period of purdah must have done wonders for Whitby’s economy. In the late twentieth century jet went out of fashion but it has come back in a big way and antique items now can fetch over £1000.


The purchase of jet is one reason to visit Whitby but there are many others. They include its beautiful setting, the literary and historic heritage, the town’s narrow cobbled streets and unusual swing bridge, beaches for those brave enough to enter the chilly North Sea, adjacent picturesque villages, magnificent cliff-top walks, nearby heathery moors (for more walking--no pun intended), and the wonderful North York Moors Railway, pulled by a steam locomotive that traverses beautiful country.


What of the food? I write from my sick bed! Not that I necessarily attribute the gastric inconvenience to last night’s dinner. It was taken at ‘Green’s Fish Restaurant’ which might plausibly claim to be one of Whitby’s best. It occupies a prime position on the main road just beyond the swing bridge on the south side of town.

Our visit got off to a disappointing start. Twenty-four hours earlier we had made a reservation in person, taking special care to specify our (window) table of choice. On our (punctual) arrival the next day, however, that table was occupied. Our complaints met with nothing but perfunctory apologies and feeble excuses. No recompense was offered.

Green’s menu shows little sign of innovation but overall our meals were by no means bad. My two companions began with oysters and scallops. Both were pronounced good. Your reviewer’s bouillabaisse was tasty, though the overwhelming flavour was of tomato and fish was in short supply. Main courses of grilled lobster and shellfish marinière also elicited enthusiastic comments  although, again, your reviewer was less satisfied with a ‘trio’ of mackerel which short in the smoked department and over-garnished, not least with a rather acidic crab bisque. Service was slow (25 minutes elapsed between our arrival and orders taken) and amateurish. A bowl of olives for three came with just one cocktail stick; the bisque arrived with no spoon. It was hard to ascertain whom, if anyone, was actually in charge front of house.

By Whitby standards, Green’s is expensive--our party of three paid around £120 ($190) for two courses each, a bottle of Muscadet, no cocktails or desserts. The walls boast a number of award certificates, none of them more recent that 2010 and some dating back 10 years. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Green’s is rather complacently living on its past. It needs to do better.

Young Fish Fryer of the Year

Incidentally, your reviewer was struck by the number of establishments in Whitby boasting some sort of prize or institutional recognition--usually by way of a framed certificate or pennant. The practice is now commonplace in Britain, much less so in the United States. In Whitby it is quite hard to find a restaurant that is not proclaiming that it has won some competition or at least come close. The Quayside, for example (see below), sports one banner stating that its chef is ‘young fish fryer of the year’ and another recording its progression to the finals of another obscure competition. Usually these marks of recognition do not even record victories. Proprietors are equally happy to proclaim a ‘runner-up’ spot or merely that they got past the early stages of an ill-specified event, in which case it is tempting to ask for directions to the winners.  Public houses play the same game; ‘pubs of the year’ proliferate. But pub of the year where: In the world, the United Kingdom, England, a county, the town, street, or landlord’s imagination?

At Green’s, it is past time to transfer to the archives certificates dating from 2003. By Whitby standards the place does not close early; many establishments shut at 8:30 pm--a point when Spanish diners have barely wakened from afternoon siesta. The early closing policy of the town’s restaurants was explained to us, not altogether convincingly; Whitby being represents a day trip for most visitors (who therefore have left by early evening) and family resort (young children dine early). The more plausible explanation is the ingrained if northern habit of early dining. Green’s purports to remain open until 9:30 pm on weekdays but during our visit staff turned away prospective customers at 8.30 despite the availability of tables. Rude and bad for business, another black mark against an establishment that is far from unblemished in other respects.

Queuing up at The Magpie Cafe

All is hardly lost, however, for Whitby’s culinary reputation rests not upon fine dining but with its fish and chips. Fish and chip restaurants, takeaways and shacks abound. By far the best known establishment is the Magpie Café. Its fame has spread. With the Magpie’s ‘no reservations’ policy, lines in the summer therefore can be long. Choose instead from the agreeable alternatives, including Trenchers across the road from the train station. We chose ‘The Quayside’ near ‘The Magpie.’ Its signature offering is the ‘Yorkshire Special.’ For £12 (about $18) you get a choice of cod or haddock, lots of chips, mushy peas, tartare sauce (if requested), bread and butter with a pot of robust Yorkshire tea. You will not leave hungry. An additional £2 ($3) buys a bottle of exemplary Black Sheep ale instead of tea. The service is efficient and friendly (Green’s take note).

Finally, I draw attention to one of Whitby’s ‘greasy spoons’--Arbut’s Café--notwithstanding that I never stepped inside. One of your reviewer’s companions, a North American on his first visit to Whitby (he gives it an enthusiastic thumbs up), stumbled into Arbut’s early one morning while out dog walking--a Boston terrier since you ask. The café was full of commercial fisherman straight off their boats, partaking of mugs of strong tea and a good fry-up. Our ingenue’s inquiry about the availability of a gluten free breakfast engendered much good natured hilarity on the part of Whitby’s fisher-folk, culminating with a loud inquiry as to whether his dog was also gluten free. The visitor made his excuses and left.

I’m Gluten Free