MAKING my way down the steps to Riley’s Fish Shack, a rustic shed huddled by the rocks at King Edward’s Bay, in Tynemouth, my first impressions are sounds and smells.

The music drifting from the beach is something cool and jazz-like, providing an instant hit of summer, and smoke from a barbecue sets my tastebuds tingling.

And the restaurant delivers on its promises. Made from converted shipping containers, it’s small and cosy, with industrial metal and rough wood, and an open front that looks directly onto the beach. For Lucy Riley, who runs the shack with her husband Adam, it’s the location that really makes it.

“You can’t get a better setting, I don’t think,” she says. “I go on holiday and I still think we’ve got one of the most beautiful settings here. We’ve got an incredible coastline – I think probably one of the most beautiful in the world – and to have a place down here, I just feel quite lucky.”

The day I visit the sun is out and, unsurprisingly, the place is packed. Diners perch on stools looking out to sea or sit behind glass in the indoor area – in truth, just slightly more sheltered than the open front. There are even deckchairs on the beach and a man trudges up from the sand to collect his order. This is dining at its most casual and, if it was the Mediterranean and not the North Sea, everyone would be in shorts and bikinis.

It’s not just the sun that brings the customers, though – which is lucky, considering the general lack of it. In fact, when Lucy arrives late, with one-year-old Axel strapped to her back, she apologises for Adam’s absence – he’s just too busy at the unit in Wallsend, where most of the preparation is done, to come along.

“He’s trying to do the job of about ten people today,” she explains. “We’ve got the hardened Fish Shack fans who will come down whatever the weather but on a sunny day, it can get ridiculously busy. It’s hard when it gets so busy down here that people get frustrated because they’re having to wait.”

The big attraction – apart from the location – is the food, which inspired a visit from Michel Roux Jr as part of the Hidden Restaurants series and which restaurant critic Jay Rayner was moved to extol as “the eating experience of the year”. It’s fresh fish, cooked simply over charcoal with a handful of side dishes. It sounds so obvious for a coastal setting – the point was, no one else was doing it.

“It was always just about the fish – that’s what we wanted it to be,” says Lucy. “Just simply grilled fish with a couple of sides. I feel like that’s all you need. You can’t beat fish cooked over charcoal, I don’t think. Either you went and had a posh plate of fish cooked in a restaurant setting or it was battered – there was no in-between. I think both of them have their place – we get fish and chips with the kids and sometimes that’s all you want – but I think you need an in-between as well.”

It was starting a family – as well as Axel, Adam and Lucy have Jasper, 12, and seven-year-old Bo – that prompted the launch of the venture. It all began with the unlikely accoutrement of a bike. “Basically, Adam built a mobile shack which was a bicycle-powered barbecue and we launched at Tynemouth Food Festival, then we did events and stuff – lots of street food,” explains Lucy.

“Working with fresh fish, we realised there was a lot of wastage and it wasn’t really profitable, so we needed to set up an event. That’s when Adam launched the Boiler Shop Steamer, which was a street food and live music event. He set that up with Matt Boyle from Wylam Brewery.”

For a while, this took over, drawing on Adam’s previous experience of events management. As Lucy explains, it was something of a collaboration. “We could make sure that this many people were coming, but then it was also about other stalls and other foods,” she says. “It was almost like a social enterprise, bringing lots of businesses together.”

When the venue, a warehouse behind Central Station, in Newcastle, closed for refurbishment, the time seemed right to move on. The bike – also stationed at King Edward’s Bay – was replaced by two shipping containers and three years ago, Riley’s Fish Shack was born.

“Under here is just a concrete slab and we just used to set up the bicycle shack with a few tables,” recalls Lucy. “That was severely weather dependent, so we decided we needed something else. That’s when Adam converted these shipping containers. He’s pretty handy. The shack just fitted down here.”

With his culinary credentials – he trained at the Swiss House restaurant on the Isle of Man – Adam felt confident in developing his own style of cooking, with fresh, locally-caught fish at its core. He visits the market every day and has built up relationships with local fishermen, as well as Tynemouth chocolatier Gareth James, who supplies the brownies, and Wylam Brewery, the beer. The list continues. “Local connections are really important and part of the whole thing we have here in Tynemouth and North Shields is about supporting each other, supporting local businesses,” says Lucy. “I think that’s hugely important in a small town.”

Now that they have taken on staff, Adam and Lucy, who live in Tynemouth, are less hands-on – but they still like to do the odd shift. “Day to day, Adam is currently at the unit, but he tries to do a couple of shifts down here a week if he can,” says Lucy. “I used to work down here a lot, but now we’ve got a good team front-of-house so I don’t need to be here as much.”

What works well about running the Fish Shack is that it fits in with the family. Life may be hectic, but, for Adam and Lucy, it’s worth the effort. “It’s hard but then we’re a family business and we’re doing this as something, hopefully, for the rest of our lives and our kids’ lives,” says Lucy.

Plans for the future remain sketchy, but one thing is clear – the business has to get bigger. “We definitely plan to expand,” says Lucy. “I don’t know whether it will be another one of these or something else, but I definitely don’t think it will just be this forever.

“At the same time, we don’t want to change down here because that’s what draws people in the first place. The most important thing to us, after the food, is the atmosphere, because that’s what we’re known for as well – having that relaxed, holiday vibe – and that’s so important.”

* Riley’s Fish Shack, King Edward’s Bay, Tynemouth

T: 0191-2571371