Flaming steel torches on the garden path, white leather chairs inside and kangaroo steak on the menu. Is this Charlie Bretts or am I hallucinating? Bretts of North Lane, the ultra-trad fish frier, revered for a century, an essential port of call for the sporting heroes of Headingley?
Yes, Bretts, the ivy clad, Yorkshire stone cottage with its immaculate front garden of clipped lawn and borders, a riot of summer bedding. The same Brett’s where we queued in the lean-to hut for takeaways or squeezed into the little wood panelled front room with its wild animal posters, for haddock and chips, tea, bread and butter and Alice’s treacle sponge.
Back in the day when Bryans Modern Fisheries (now the Fisherman’s Wife) vied with Bretts for the title of best fish and chips in Headingley, it was by extension a competition for the best in Yorkshire, England and beyond. Indeed, Bretts’ most famous champion, the cricket commentator and bon viveur John Arlott, rated the Grimsby haddock and chips (62p as he wrote in 1976) ‘the best fish and chips in the world’.
Leeds was once called ‘the intellectual capital of fish and chips’. The National Federation of Fish Friers’ headquarters around the corner in Meanwood is still there running training courses for would-be chip shop owners and still publishing the Fish Friers’ Review.
Over in Guiseley, Harry Ramsden’s, the fish and chip palace which turned a ‘fish oile’ into a tourist attraction, was recently bought by the Wetherby Whaler which spent £750,000 to bring back the stained glass, the oak panelling and chandeliers, and put up a blue plaque to Harry.
There is no blue plaque yet for Charlie Brett, but his dining room has had a startling makeover in both design and dishes. The new owners, cricket fan and local businessman Richard Gibson and his daughter Fiona, have put in wood floors, oak tables, those white leather chairs and commissioned a vividly coloured and respectful contemporary mural using symbols of rugby, cricket, fishing and the Yorkshire rose.
Their respect for Bretts’ heritage has also seen the hallowed Charlie put into the name, though if he came back now he’d hardly recognise the place. Clean, white, fresh and smart with a hint of bling from LED-lit cherry blossom trees and the flaming torches. Good that they’ve kept the ivy and the big white lettering over the front door and the takeaway down the side, but now you enter by the front gate where Oskar Long, the young and enthusiastic restaurant manager, greets us.
He brings warm bread, salted butter and olive oil with balsamic. He brings water, Ilkley Brewery beer and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc at £4.95 a price hike since the days when John Arlott recommended popping into Safeways for a £1.29 bottle of Macon Blanc.
OK, enough nostalgia. Oskar shows just a flicker of weariness when we reminisce: ‘and the sticky carpet’, he adds. ‘I’ve heard a lot about the carpet’
It’s a different era. Fish and chips might have once fuelled the nation – I once counted 335 chippies in the Leeds Yellow Pages – but these days, with competition from Arc, Ask, Trio and the rest, any chippie worth its salt and vinegar has to offer more than haddock, chips and mushy peas and Bretts does: risotto, asparagus and smoked salmon, duck (the ‘bird of the day’), steak and chips and ‘Charlie’s Challenge’: kangaroo fillet. Oh, please, no gimmick food.
Bring on haddock and chips at £9.50. It passes the test: crisp, dry batter, tender flakes of fish, floury potatoes, home-made tartare sauce. Arlott would have approved. There’s no sliced bread and butter on the ‘sides’, no loss for me there, but you can still get a nice tray of tea.
Cod and chips are pricier at £13.50 and then there’s hake, fish pie, smoked haddock risotto, and the ‘catch of the day from Hodgson’s own Sagittarius boat.’
Since when did they land mahi mahi at Hartlepool? ‘It’s from Ramus’, Oskar clarifies. Ramus, the respected Harrogate fishmonger, presumably has it flown in from somewhere like Taiwan or the US. It’s also sometimes known as dolphinfish (but no, it’s not dolphin) or dorade and appears to be sustainable. We order it and find it perfectly good, with firm, greying flesh, a bit like shark, well cooked.
We also sample two starters, a bucket of crisp coated mackerel goujons with their homemade tartare sauce – all good – and tasty charred asparagus and smoked salmon topped with a poached egg and a slick of hollandaise.
Puddings cover hot chocolate fondant, bread and butter pudding with vanilla custard and Charlie’s classic sherry trifle, though not Alice’s treacle sponge. We had eaten well so we pass on them all and raise our glasses to the ghosts of Charlie Brett and John Arlott and to a happy future for the new incarnation. It would be easy to cry sacrilege but I won’t. After all, so many fish and chip places have gone west, if Bretts had been stuck forever in some cobwebbed and sentimental past it might not have survived at all.
• Charlie Brett’s, 12-14 North Lane, Headingley LS6 3HE. 0113 232 3344, www.facebook.com/BRETTSFISH; Open: Sunday, 12-4pm; Monday, 5-9pm; Wednesday to Friday, 12-2.30pm & 5-9.30pm; Saturday, 12-9.30pm. Closed Tuesday. Price: about. £20 plus coffee, wine and service