How boat came in to give Whitby a gourmet touch

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The smell of batter hangs pleasantly in the air above Baxtergate as visitors squeeze their way through the narrow streets and on to the swing bridge across the harbour.

Whitby is famous for its fresh fish and chips, and few leave without sampling at least a forkful from Trenchers, the Royal or one of 20 or so other dispensaries within a seagull’s swoop of the east pier.

Derek Brown, Co-Owner and the 5th generation of the famous Fortunes Kippers, Henrietta Street, Whitby.

Derek Brown, Co-Owner and the 5th generation of the famous Fortunes Kippers, Henrietta Street, Whitby.

But where there’s haddock, there’s now also haute cuisine. Whitby was never the last resort of candy floss kiosks or the sort of saveloys on sticks they seem to like further south – but neither was it the first recourse for the adventurous foodie.

It is now. The shop window afforded by the 2002 mooring of the Australian replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour – the 250th anniversary of whose first voyage is this year – brought the town to the attention of a new generation of families and niche tourists who might previously have seen it as a backwater.

A decade and a half on, it is alive with enough bars and bistros to have earned it comparisons with the gourmet resorts of north Cornwall.

“It’s massively more cosmopolitan than it was,” says Andrew Pern, the chef who last year opened a seaside offshoot of his Michelin-starred Star Inn at Harome, near Helmsley, in the former tourist information office on the banks of the Esk.

“It’s the Padstow of the North. To be honest, it’s not far off where it wants to be to compete with those other seaside towns around the country.”

The catalyst for change was the Endeavour, adds Mr Pern, a Whitby native. “People fell in love with it. They polished the place up and now it’s great fun going there. It’s probably one of the best-known resorts along the coast.”

Mr Pern may be the most prominent exponent of Whitby’s nouvelle cuisine but he was not the first. A few blocks away on Silver Street, just off Flowergate, Russell Hirst and his partner Kirsty Shears, run an emporium which is as much east London as east coast.

The Rusty Shears has earned in its first four years ecstatic reviews for its charcuterie and cheese platters, mushroom burgers with halloumi and avocado and for its accommodation of the fashionable gin and tonic set.

More than 170 different gins are available to day drinkers – the place is not open in the evenings – and demand, fuelled by a change in the law which favours small distilleries, shows no signs of slowing.

“When we opened, I don’t think anyone was doing this sort of thing. Now everyone seems to be,” says Mr Hirst.

“We wanted to offer something different to fish and chips – leaning towards a vegetarian offering because Kirsty creates most of the menus and she’s vegetarian, but trying to cater for everyone’s tastes.”

He and Kirsty, another Whitby returnee, took on the 17th-century former coaching inn after a few years spent travelling in a motor home.

The place already had a place on Whitby’s gastronomic footnotes as one of its first bistros, named after a surgeon who sailed on the Endeavour and who once lived there. “It needed quite a bit of TLC when we took it,” Mr Hirst says.

All of this is a long way from the Whitby Ian Robson knew when, 40 years ago, he took over the Magpie in Pier Road – still the town’s best-known fish and chip shop.

“In those days, it was open from Good Friday to September. For the rest of the year, Whitby was a ghost town,” he says.

“Today, it’s true that people come partly for the food. I like to think we’ve had something to do with that.”

The Magpie’s recipe now is little changed, although in a nod to its increasingly discerning clientele it offers gluten-free batter as well as a seafood platter Mr Robson’s early customers would have had to fly to the Costas to sample.

“But 70 per cent of our sales are still fish and chips,” he says.