If there is one restaurant in Whitby that captures the heritage, ambience and essence of this coastal town, it is the White Horse & Griffin. It is one of the oldest and most iconic properties on the east side of town, and once inside it transports the visitor to a bygone world of explorers, smugglers and gallons upon gallons of alcohol.
Built in 1691 by local MP and diplomat Sir Hugh Cholmley, the White Horse & Griffin was the first coaching inn on the Whitby-York-London route. According to local historians, it was where James Cook and William Scoresby planned their great voyages, and where Charles Dickens once stayed. It closed in 1939 and that might have been that, had it not been for the intervention of a modern-day Whitby legend, Stewart Perkins.
Perkins, a larger-than-life builder, bought the dilapidated building in 1982, took 11 years to restore it and re-opened the White Horse & Griffin as a restaurant and hotel in 1993. Perkins was considered outspoken, controversial, hospitable (the alcohol-drenched lock-ins are part of Whitby folklore) and anti-authoritarian, and within 30 years the whole enterprise had crashed and burned.
Enter Ed Henebury, an ex-captain in the British army and now an enterprising Yorkshire businessman, who was determined to preserve the best of what Perkins had created (a highly individual four-storey restaurant and hotel) and restore the establishment, once again, to its former glory. These are early days, as Henebury only took over in February this year, but the signs are that he is succeeding.
The main restaurant downstairs, which is reached from the cobbles of Church Street and through a bar, sets the retro tone. Flagged floors, exposed beams and brickwork, old wooden tables and loads of flickering candles recall the past, but the locally-sourced food is reassuringly modern. Chef Andrew Pearson, a survivor from the Perkins regime, has been told by Henebury to play to his strengths, so the ubiquitous steak and chips have been replaced by the most imaginative menu in town.
The food is now much more contemporary and cosmopolitan, with a strong French influence. Although I visited the WH &G for dinner, it is worth briefly mentioning lunch, as it boasts a splendid grazing menu, which includes pork and venison sausage with baked potato bubble and squeak and onion gravy; pork and chicken terrine with pickled pears and crusty bread; oysters served with lemon and Tabasco; and salmon and Yorkshire chorizo fishcakes.
The fishcakes, accompanied by watercress and grain mustard tartare sauce, reappear on the superb dinner menu and were delicious. So too was the baked fig, beetroot and Ribblesdale smoked goats cheese tart with hazelnut pastry and creamed horseradish. Other starters include pigeon breast with ceps, celeriac hash brown and carrot jam, and smoked mackerel pate with mackerel tartar, lemon pickled fennel and cucumber.
The jewel in the crown of the main courses, for fish-lovers at least, was the glorious seafood meze, for two to share. This featured lobster, crab, oysters, fishcakes, halibut, mackerel, salmon and cod, served with hand-cut chips or skinny fries. Ed Hanebury explained that all the fish had been caught by local independent fishermen. This massive dish was so fresh you could taste the sea. Other main courses included fillet of North Sea halibut with wilted samphire, potato dumplings and cockle and caper butter, and a made-to-order fish pie topped with hand-piped potato crust.
Puddings were generous, without being massive, and exquisitely cooked. Pastry chef Natacha Coeurjoli, formerly of The Black Swan in Helmsley, has created a Granny Smith Tarte Tatin with Wensleydale cheese ice cream and warm honey, with the light, crisp pastry merging perfectly with distinctive flavour of the ice cream. Dark chocolate and cherry brulee, an imaginative reworking of the classic crème brulee, and the Yorkshire mixture of puddings, featuring pear drops, rhubarb, custard, blackcurrant and liquorice, maintained the high standard.
Competitively-priced wines from across the globe are supplied by leading Yorkshire vintners Firth & Co, completing a highly enjoyable dining experience, which works out at £30 a head without the wine. After that, you can stagger up to one of the White Horse & Griffin’s 10 ensuite double bedrooms, named after well-known Whitby ships and skippers, or slip out into the glittering Whitby night.
01947 604857, whitehorseandgriffin.com Open daily, 12-3pm & 5pm-9.30pm.