Phenomenon of the Whitby Magpie queue

Staff from the Magpie Cafe in Whitby''w122221
Staff from the Magpie Cafe in Whitby''w122221

Hungry tourists queueing down Pier Road seeking the perfect place for fish and chips is as synonymous now with the Magpie Cafe as sand is with the beach.

In the height of the summer around 1,500 people per day tuck into fish and chips either in the restaurant overlooking the harbour or from the takeaway so it has obviously perfected its piece de resistance and the reputation precedes it now.

Magpie owner Ian Robson''w132501b

Magpie owner Ian Robson''w132501b

But fish and chips haven’t always been the order of the day, in fact their addition to the menu was almost accidental.

It was back in 1939 that this iconic black and white building was turned into a cafe and for many years the staple choices on the menu were beef and pork lunches.

Amazingly it was still some years later before fish and chips featured on the menu and they were only a tea time special.

Ian Robson, the current owner, recalls he started working there as a fish fryer in 1979 and the business was run by his ex-wife Alison’s parents, Sheila and Ian McKenzie.

Magpie queue''w132501c

Magpie queue''w132501c

He said: “When I first came full time I was doing fish frying and a bit of everything really. In the mid 1970s we started getting more into the fish and chips.

“They always did them because Ian had a fish and chip shop before he came but they only did them at tea-time, then they found out they were popular and started doing them all day.”

Then celebrity chef Rick Stein said fish and chips at the Magpie Cafe were the best in the country...and the business has never looked back.

It now has a global reputation attracting visitors from all over the world, providing advertising that money can’t buy.

Magpie fish and chips''w132501a

Magpie fish and chips''w132501a

Ian said: “It has always been busy in the summer because of where we are but after Rick Stein it started taking off and got busier after that. You can’t buy that type of advertising.”

But there must be more to it than that. What started as a standard fish and chip supper has now developed into an extensive seafood menu you would be hardpressed to find even in some of London’s top restaurants.

There are now at least 12 different fish specials on the menu each day from lobster to oysters to crab but with 120 people being able to be seated in the restaurant at once, up to 700 customers in the restaurant per day and 800 people a day using the takeaway there is a fine line between producing the finest food but coping with the numbers.

Even during the winter months there are as many as 300 customers a day - a return many other town centre fish shops and restaurants can only aspire to.

Head chef Paul Gildroy said: “We are always looking at what other chefs are doing but without copying , we put our own spin on things and create our own dish.

“For us we have got to think about there being 130 covers and making sure we can get that dish out within reasonable time.”

While, some of the more complex dishes might tickle your tastebuds with a hot seafood pot of clams, crevettes, king scallops, mussels and salmon in a liquor of wine, butter and a hint of garlic or a Magpie Medley with wild bass, salmon, scallops and king prawns on creamed sapphire and garlic potatoes - there are others that haven’t changed in 30 years, and in some cases neither have the customers.

Ian says: “We have got the core menu that has been there all the time such as fish and chips and some of the desserts have been on the menu for 30 years. We keep adding things and if they stop selling then we take them off.

“We have got a man that has been coming since 1939. He lives in Nunthorpe and is now in his 80s but brought his late wife here on a date. They have been coming back once a year both of them but latterly just him. We have a couple that come from Brid three times a week right through the year.”

Not everything can stay the same though and with the Endeavour and Heartbeat TV series prompting a tourism boom in the 1990s more fish and chips shops, cafes and restaurants came with it so the Magpie can’t rest on its laurels.

Six years ago it added its own takeaway and has also bought the building next door so that it can extend the restaurant. The space was originally intended for a fish mongers but Whitby Catch opened up on Haggersgate - but as it turned out, the Magpie business also acquired that.

Ian said: “It is always a challenge, it keeps us on our toes and makes sure we are always doing things right.”

One thing that has been controversial of late is restaurants and chippies advertising Whitby fish despite the lack of trawlers landing in Whitby and the uncertainty surrounding the future of Whitby fish market.

Ian adds: “We have a fish buyers licence for Whitby and Scarborough markets.

“We get what we can from there and Dennis Crooks fish merchant and the Whitby boats that land in Scotland.

“We used to get everything off Whitby market and from here you would see them coming back in but not now, it’s quite sad.

“We couldn’t survive off what is landed in Whitby. We still source from Whitby boats, they just don’t land here.”