In November 2016 the Sunday Times restaurant critic AA Gill announced his incurable cancer in his final review, of the Magpie Café in Whitby. It’s quite an opening salvo, and typical of his forthrightness; ‘In truth, I’ve got an embarrassment of cancer, the full English. There is barely a morsel of offal not included.’ He died that December.
Six months after that review, a fire started on the top floor of the Magpie and ripped through the building. For a while no one was quite sure when it would be back in business, but a brand new, shiny, reborn fish restaurant opened just before Christmas. I don’t need to describe the outside, or the location. You’ve all been, you know what it looks like and where it is. And inside? Well, it’s pretty much the same.
It’s been refurbished, of course, the fire damage was considerable, but they’ve stuck with what has always worked.
Gill had flown from London with the comedian Jimmy Carr ‘in a whirlybird’ to join Jeremy Clarkson who was filming for his Grand Tour programme. On hearing of Gill’s diagnosis, Carr had invited him along. ‘Where are we going?’ asked Gill. ‘Paris? Deauville? Barcelona?’ ‘Whitby’ said Carr.
‘Now you’re talking’ was the rejoinder. He’s affectionately sniffy about Whitby: ‘It’s a place that is both eminently dour and practical and utterly, bonkersly up some seaside spectrum. So, everyone on the street has apparently decided to dress at Millets for under £15 and attach themselves to a terrier.’ He must have spotted me on his way through. They sat in the window of the Magpie, looking out over the harbour (minus Clarkson, who had other fish to fry) and Gill reports that they were ‘absurdly happy’.
Four of us fetch up on a chilly evening and even the low-lying fog obscuring the Abbey doesn’t detract from the view. There is a contented babble rising across three floors when we arrive and staff who seem genuinely pleased to see us all. So has the menu had a makeover too? Of course not.
It’s vast, goes on page after page, and it’s not just fish & chips. Choose poached or grilled cod, haddock, hake, Woof or skate wing (amongst others) or fish pie, seafood hotpot or the Magpie Medley (salmon, turbot, scallops and king prawns in a creamy garlic sauce) mussels and chips or lobster thermidor.
You’d be forgiven for suffering a slight case of menu paralysis. There are meat dishes (battered chip shop style sausage, Yorkshire gammon, lasagne and steak) but you’d be missing the point, when there’s Whitby crab bisque, and the fish is ‘responsibly sourced’ i.e. from the sea across the road from the front door.
So fish it is. A plate of oysters on ice disappear about a swiftly as the kipper from Fortunes on Henrietta Street, served here with a pot of jam. JAM. We scratch our heads, but it works, the sweetness cutting through the smokiness. J’s squid is richly buttered and nicely seasoned and my three huge scallops are perfectly flash-fried and plated up with sweet, earthy roast beetroot, sharp goat’s curd and honeycomb – crumbled as if from a Crunchie bar. Odd, but it’s inspired.
From the specials board, grilled sea bass (two stonking pieces) arrives on top of a dense, tomatoey, rich cassoulet shot through with chorizo and with a kick of heat. J’s haddock and salmon gratin is freighted with chunks of fish in an absurdly rich cheese sauce with a handful of parmesan on top just in case your arteries aren’t furred enough. G’s bowl of crayfish and lobster fettuccine is the size of a dustbin lid. We all look at it, then at him. Good luck with that, we chorus.
He does his best (more massive chunks of seafood and perhaps half a pint of cream) and when our lovely waitress asks us if we need anything else, he mutters ‘a defibrillator?’
Don’t get me wrong, these double-dairy loaded dishes are fabulously luxurious – every forkful is glorious and indulgent – you just wouldn’t want to eat them every week. D goes for the classic fish & chips; a ‘regular’ haddock reaches either side of the plate, which gives you an idea how big the ‘large’ is.
The golden batter shatters at the fork revealing pearly, perfectly cooked fish and we all look on enviously. Beef-dripping twice-fried chips are thick, crunchy and floury. It’s not for nothing that the Magpie is famous for its F&C. I’ve never had a duff one.
You would think that desserts might defeat us but that would be to underestimate our dedication to duty. Sticky toffee pudding (‘it’s been on the menu for 40 years’) with a scoop of Beacon Farm ice cream is good, but the lemon sundae is epic, chock-full of so many lemony things (meringue, mousse, curd) it makes my mouth go into that ‘0’ shape. If you can tackle the jam roly poly and custard, you’re a better man than me.
You still have to queue, though they do take reservations out of school holidays, but I’m not averse to the orderly line; So arrive in the knowledge that, essentially, nothing’s changed. All hail The Magpie Café, it’s good to have an old friend back. AA Gill finished up his review with ‘This is, all things considered, without pretension but with utter self-confidence, still the best fish and chips in the world.’ I’m not arguing.
The Magpie Café, 14 Pier Road, Whitby YO21 3PU. 01947 602058, magpiecafe.co.uk. Open daily: 11.30am to 8pm.