Nigel Burton finds the British institution of fish and chips in good hands

HISTORY doesn’t record who invented fish ‘n’ chips, but we have a 13-year-old entrepreneur from London to thank for selling them together, wrapped in paper.

Teenager Joseph Malin had the genius idea of combining the fried fish and chipped potatoes in a single meal in 1860. His family fried the chips in a downstairs room of their home and a nearby shop supplied the fish. Joseph sold them by carrying a tray and walking the streets of London’s East End.

Who could resist such a smell?

Nowadays, it’s hard to think of such a classic double act as solo performers – rather like Laurel without Hardy or Morcambe sans Wise, they just wouldn’t be the same.

Historians reckon the chip originated in Belgium where resourceful mums sometimes substituted fried potato shapes for fish when the rivers froze over. Fried fish arrived here in the 17th Century – imported by Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal.

Since then, we’ve certainly done our bit. Fish ‘n’ chips (the “sixpenny supper”) sustained national morale through two world wars, helped turn fishing ports into holiday resorts and made Friday night suppers the culinary highlight of the week for generations. George Orwell reckoned they were essential for keeping the masses happy – and he was right. More than 150 years after Joseph Malin opened his first shop, fish and chips are a British institution.

In Yorkshire, the most famous exponent was Harry Ramsden whose West Yorkshire fish ‘n chip “palace” was modelled on the London Ritz. In 1952, more than 10,000 meals were sold – earning Ramsden’s a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

Harry’s original restaurant in Guiseley, Leeds, is now owned by another famous Yorkshire fish and chip empire – the Wetherby Whaler group.

And while the Ramsden’s name has gone through several changes of ownership since Harry sold out in 1954, the Wetherby Whaler’s present management can trace their lineage back to husband-andwife Phillip and Janine Murphy, who started the business with a modest chippy in Tadcaster more than 40 years ago.

Sadly, heavy snow meant a visit to Guiseley was out of the question, so we made do with the Whaler’s restaurant on the outskirts of York (within easy reach from both the A19 and the A1). The York restaurant was the first purpose-built Wetherby Whaler when it opened in November 1997 and was, until the Ramsden’s deal, something of a group flagship.

We visited the Wetherby Whaler on a freezing cold Tuesday lunchtime. As the snow and ice had made hard work of our journey and we expected the place to be largely empty. Wrong.

On arrival, the 140-seat restaurant was rammed and we just managed to nab the last two places. The folk behind us had to wait.

What’s the secret? A quick glance revealed a suspiciously large number of older customers. And then I spotted it: the Whaler’s keen prices are even leaner if you’re of pensionable age – a mere £7.48 for the full three-course slap-up meal (including tea or coffee, bread and butter and mushy peas). At that price, the margins must be wafer thin.

We opted for the same deal (still generous at £14.50) and our waiter brought us the menus.

Starters consist of soup of the day, prawn cocktail, chicken goujons or garlic mushrooms. My prawn cocktail came in a tall glass packed with a generous selection of tasty prawns sitting on a bed of iceberg lettuce and drizzled with a tangy sauce. It might not have looked as pretentious as some prawn cocktails I’ve ordered in “posher” (and more expensive) restaurants, but it was every bit as good.

The chicken goujons, too, looked and tasted like real strips of chicken breast meat.

We both had good old haddock and chips for our main meal. If you forgo the three-course deal you can have your portion in regular, large and giant size. A word of advice, the giant portion is only for the largest of appetites – our regular plates were more than big enough. You’d have to be truly famished to polish off a giant-sized portion.

The Whaler earns extra points for offering tea and coffee in decaffeinated flavours (too much caffeine and I get a migraine), as well as a range of fruit teas. Both my starter and the main course came with bread and butter.

You won’t find skinny little chips at the Wetherby Whaler. The chips served here are big and chunky traditional types – crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Thick chips absorb less fat and are healthier than thin ones, too.

The skinless haddock was a delight – fresh from the fryer, encased in a tasty light batter with only the minimum of greasy residue. I grew up in Scarborough and I know a decent fried fish when I taste one. The Wetherby Whaler’s haddock gets top marks.

After such a slap-up meal we needed a ten-minute hiatus before the dessert. Just as well because my black cherry cheese cake was the size of a doorstep.

The management certainly believe in catering for hearty appetites.

One of the most frequent criticisms I hear as a critic is that I only frequent expensive restaurants.

The Wetherby Whaler isn’t expensive but there’s nothing cheap about the food. The future of a British institution is in good hands.

Food facts

Wetherby Whaler, Nether Poppleton, York. Tel: 01904 784500 website: Open: Monday – Saturday, 11.30am-10pm; Sunday, 12 noon – 10pm. Takeaway available until 10.30pm

Food: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Ambience: 4/5

Value for money: 5/5