At the bottom end of Whitby’s cobbled Church Street and in through the narrow door of the White Horse and Griffin a corridor leads to a dark, low-beamed dining room of flagged floors, exposed brick, scrubbed tables and lots of candlelight.
It’s been tidied up some, but there are enough worn flagstones and flickering candles to conjure up its days as a coaching inn. Just the sort of place where William Scoresby might sit with a flagon of ale and tell of his whaling adventures or where a young Captain Cook might set up in a corner to do the hiring for his Whitby coasters.
Hang on a minute, according to their history, that’s just who did come here; even Charles Dickens reputedly took a bed for the night in one of the rickety floored upstairs rooms. The website even claims ‘good stabling’ though it’s probably not recommended to turn up on horseback.
The WH&G continued as a coaching inn on the Whitby to London route for umpteen years. In 1939 at the outbreak of war it closed and fell into disrepair used only as a net and lobster pot store until local builder Stewart Perkins saw its potential, spent nine years restoring it and in 1982 opened it as a hotel and restaurant.
It became legendary during those years under the garrulous, hospitable Perkins. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. From being the best place to eat in Whitby and tales of legendary lock-ins, it fell into decline, drew a torrent of criticism on TripAdvisor and in 2009 was fined £5,000 for dirty kitchens.
Perkins had had enough and put it up for sale where it sat in the estate agent’s window until last year when Ed Henebury, a recruitment executive from Harrogate, bought it, cleaned and renovated it, gave the kitchen over to chef Andrew Pearson and opened in February.
So what’s it like? The menu has lightened up from its fillet steak and chips days. Now the summer menu has crab cakes, chicken liver parfait, a seafood meze that includes lobster, crab, mussels and oysters, as well as mackerel fillets, moules mariniere and the obligatory sirloin and chips.
We go for ‘Whitby crab cakes with apple and radish salad in a lime dressing’ and ‘oatmeal dressed scampi with smoked bacon, mushrooms and whisky cream’ at £6 and £7 respectively.
The oatmeal gives the scampi a more rustic appeal than the usual commercial breadcrumbs, the bacon and mushrooms are fine and so is the cream, though it doesn’t meet the whisky in any convincing way. The crab cakes, too, need attention, like more crab, less potato. No doubt these were created in the Griffin’s kitchen, but they taste like something that’s been tipped straight from the freezer bag and into the deep fat fryer.
Things warm up by the mains. Mackerel with gooseberry bread and butter pudding and spinach (£14) is a nice idea. Gooseberry has long been a match for oil-rich mackerel and here the bread and butter pudding cleverly combines a starchy element with tart gooseberries. Suggested improvements: more sugar to fight the tartness and better bread than sliced white that tends to sliminess. The mackerel, two generous fillets, cooked to perfection deserve the adjustment.
Our dish of the day is the warm lobster and sea trout salad with peas, asparagus, feta and raspberry vinegar (£15). The jury’s out on the feta and the vinegar and the English asparagus season has long since finished, but the sea trout is well matched with generous gobbets of lobster. Two prime items from the local sea harvest done proper justice.
We rattle on to puddings: blackcurrant Eton mess is interpreted here as fruit and gingerbread crumbs placed on a hard, dry, snowy white meringue nest. Not my idea of a proper mess. Go to the Reliance in Leeds if you want to know how to balance meringue, cream and fruit to maximum effect. The tart tatin by contrast is lovely: one thin layer of crisp pastry, topped with nicely sliced toffeed-apples paired with a slightly savoury Wensleydale ice cream.
As we pay up, people are still arriving, anxious for a table – hardly surprising for Whitby on an August Bank Holiday when the town is heaving. And an honourable mention in passing to efficient service under high pressure. What, though, of the Griffin on a wet Tuesday in February? Henebury is under no illusion: “You don’t have to work too hard in the summer season. Everyone has to eat, so you are going to fill the tables, but I want it to be a restaurant for local people. They are the ones who we want to keep coming back.”
They’ll only keep coming back if the food excites them. Henebury admits he’s no food expert yet and while the replumbing, rewiring and upgrading of the kitchens and the bedrooms is admirable, and it’s good to give chef his head, the Griffin is not yet the finished article. More self-critical testing and perhaps better sourcing would help. That said, Dickens and co. would be delighted to see the White Horse and Griffin once again restored to life.
White Horse & Griffin, 87 Church Street, Whitby, North Yorkshire YO22 4BH. 01947 604857, www. whitehorseandgriffin.com. Open daily, 12-3pm & 5pm-9.30pm. Price: £26 a head plus wine, coffee and service.