My love of fish and chips dates back to formative years growing up in London, U.K., the historical home of this popular, populist, down-home dish.
In my early teens, I recall joining Girl Guides where we lived in the North London suburb of Finchley – then a white-collar, white-bread enclave where my Jewish family stood out like a sore thumb.
I joined, not because I was interested in reef knots or lighting a bonfire in the woods. No, it was an early sign of my affinity for things culinary and a special love of all things deep-fried. Okay, full disclosure: I signed up for my local Girl Guides group because they met at Tally-Ho on Finchley’s high street where, for me, a food mecca was located: The Regent Fish and Chips.
In the late 1950s, London’s fish and chip shops like The Regent may have had a stand-up counter and a couple of formica-topped tables but their main trade was take-away. And yes, they did wrap both fish (usually a blackboard scrawl that included cod, haddock, halibut and plaice) and the inimitable chips (delectably thick, twice-fried, soggy-yet-crisp) in real newspaper. Mandatory self-serve additions were lavish sprinklings of salt and malt vinegar.
There’s another childhood memory.
My late ex-father-in-law Ben Kane had a fish and chip shop not far from Tally-Ho. Again, there was an excuse to stop by that emporium for his delicious chips – the ones we call “crinkle cut” and were just plain innovative in the UK those days. I would go to Ben’s after swimming in the nearby indoor swimming pool – an activity I was no more into than hanging with the Girl Guides – just to purchase a batch of the crisp, salty, deep-fried veg that never appeared on our family’s European-inspired menu.
Now those personal history confessions are out of the way, on to the serious stuff: The history of fish and chips.
Ben Kane, a Cockney Jew who grew up in London’s East End, came by his profession honestly. According to British food writer and restaurant critic Jay Rayner in a column dated January 2003 in The Observer, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe called Joseph Malin “opened the first business in London’s East End selling fried fish alongside chipped potatoes which, until then, had been found only in the Irish potato shops.”
(An aside is called for at this point: Many fans of fish and chips argue that the best vendors of same are to be found in Ireland. I cannot comment as I have not researched this firsthand.)
Rayner also states that there was a Lancashire tradition emanating from the “regional baked potato business.” Add to this the industrial revolution that increased the supply of sea fish and the working-class “fish supper” mushroomed in popularity. By 1910, there were about 25,000 fish and chip shops in Britain.
And some things never change. Anecdotally, I can tell you that fish and chips are alive and well both in my home city of Toronto, Canada, and in my former home: London, U.K. In fact, this originally working class meal seems to be enjoying a revival with high-end chefs joining the old-school fray.
What’s more, there isn’t a friend or foe who doesn’t show enthusiasm or a strong opinion when I mention this hot topic.
I was in London visiting my elderly mum in April, 2015, when I decided to do some sleuthing. Eating a meal of deep-fried food almost daily for two weeks is not for the faint-hearted nor for a sensitive stomach. Luckily, I have neither of these conditions. (Disclaimer: I do not recommend eating this dish on a daily basis; once a week would be fine.)
To help my search, I met with Daniel Young, a former New York restaurant critic and foodie now living in London. Young is known, among other things, for his Top Ten lists. He has a huge following on social media and has won awards for “youngandfoodish,” his lively website.
One of his specialties is fish and chips. We met in Camden Town at Hook: one of the new breed of London restaurants featuring sustainable fish and exotic twists on the traditional “chippie” theme. Over an excellent lunch of – you guessed it, fish and chips – we discussed the topic du jour.
Young is emphatic about a couple of things. He starts with the fish: “The beautiful thing about fish and chips is that the fried batter creates a cocoon so the fish steams under that cocoon. That cocoon is the key. It protects the fish from the oil and creates this wonderfully crisp, crunchy coating like the best fried chicken.”
For this to occur, the fish must be fried to order. The mandatory wait is seven to eight minutes. “It should be too hot to hold but too good to resist.”
He continues: “Fish and chips is a simple thing to do well but you need fresh fish and people who know how to prepare it correctly and a steady audience willing to wait.” The fish should be “fresh from the sea and fresh out of the fryer.”
He prefers a thin to medium-thick batter on the fish and non-traditional chips that are skinny and crisp. That is the kind we were served at Hook.
Young’s Top Ten list in hand plus a few places I’d noted from my own sleuthing, I’ve come up with this list of London fish and chip eateries in loose order of preference. There are others highly recommended by folks I trust. Fodder for my next visit.
Sweetings: A lovely vintage establishment in the financial district dates back to 1955 and is only open for lunch. Fabulous.
Hook: Recently opened in colourful, gritty Camden Town by two young Irish entrepreneurs with fish and chip experience back home, Hook specializes in sustainable fish and fancy tweaks on the usual theme. Delicious food in a relaxing room.
Toff’s: Opened in 1968, a terrific spot in North London’s Muswell Hill with retro decor and delicious food.
Oliver’s Fish & Chips: A few doors away from “genuine British boozer” the Sir Richard Steele pub is this newish and stellar chippie. A few tables but mostly take-out. Belsize Park/Primrose Hill.
The Fish and Chip Shop: One of your new breed of chef-inspired restaurants in Angel/Islington, this is a comfortable, welcoming spot with really good food.
Fish Central: A favourite of Daniel Young’s, the fish and chips are excellent. A big, bright room often caters to groups. Angel area.
Poppies: The Camden Town location is packed with tourists. Batter a bit thick on the fish but tasty fare, good service.
Back in Toronto, I embarked on home-turf sleuthing. The results, as usual loosely in order of preference. Again, the limit on deep-fried food in my diet limited the survey:
Len Duckworth’s Fish & Chips: A family-owned and -operated, no-nonsense place, this has been around since 1929. Sit-down and takeout businesses are brisk. A winner.
New Toronto Fish & Chips: Open since 1973, this adorable, quirky spot in Etobicoke opened in 1973 and still serves top-notch fare. Well-worn but comfy and welcoming.
British Style Fish & Chips: With a few tables, it’s mostly take-out at this excellent east-end spot. Both fish and chips are seriously good.
Reliable Fish & Chips: Again, a small east-end eatery that takes its fare seriously and does it well. In fact, reliably since 1930!
Olde Yorke Fish & Chips: Family-owned since opening in Leaside in 1997, the food is excellent in this popular place. The two welcoming dining rooms are usually packed.
Fresco’s Fish & Chips: This newish shop in Kensington Market has a few seats inside and a few tables on the sidewalk patio. Exemplary fish and chips.
Easy Catch Fish and Chips: Midtown on Yonge St. south of St. Clair, both fish and chips are hot, fresh and well prepared at this sizable sit-down restaurant – a newcomer to the burgeoning fish and chips scene..