I feel like Tynemouth has been kept a secret from people like me. That if word got around the area would be ruined by precious souls inflicting their rushed way of life on the locals, bringing down the community with bad habits. The truth is they do things differently up here. They do life better. They have not one, but two beaches, separated by castle ruins straight out of a movie scene and a pier that requires a full turn of the head to track from shore to lighthouse. There is no immediate rush to get anywhere, and everyone wants to help: from the woman in the lunchtime queue who advised on what to order, to the man who started off giving us directions and ended up advising on how to avoid a parking charge. The people are better here, untainted by the rat race that engulfs the bigger cities, unharmed by the obsession that status is everything. On the morning we arrive in Tynemouth it is bathed in pure sunlight. The picturesque village is quietly heaving with those transitioning from coffee shop to pub terrace, hell bent on making the most of an unusually warm Monday in May. We pass these on the way to the steep steps which lead down to King Edward’s Bay. We have lunch to eat.
Riley’s Fish Shack is just that: a wooden hut sat off-centre on the beach. It’s a tiny place with a huge reputation. Two tables inside protected by sliding glass doors, and seating for maybe ten more on wooden stools if the weather holds up. We get there early, order wine and wait for the fish to arrive. It is noon by the time that we can order, by which point the queue is fifty deep. Clearly they have an audience. We order chilli fish empanadas, a small portion of langoustines, monkfish kebab, and turbot with garlic butter. Two more glasses of wine and pay the total of £80.00. The cheapest item is just under a fiver, the most expensive is £26. As ever, we massively overestimate our eating potential.
Simply put, it is one of the best meals I’ve eaten in recent years. Maybe it is the terroir; the shining sun and the North sea slowly rippling onto the sand. Or maybe it is that the fish is supremely fresh, cooked to a nacre either directly over flames or in the pizza oven. From the pizza oven comes chilli fish empanadas, a kind of pasty encased in pizza dough. The casing is robust; tightly crimped like the crowd at an 80’s tribute night which works the jaw like a pill at a 90’s rave. The filling is an unidentifiable white fish (I’m taking a punt at coley) spun with veg and plenty of spice. At £4.80 it would make a very nice office lunch provided you were happy to join the queue which was 80 strong at this point. A small portion of langoustines is a more primal affair that requires a good grip and hand wipes. No wonder my girlfriend was so good at it. Free the meat from the shell and dredge through a garlicky mayonaise. Repeat process. Produce this good requires minimal intervention.
And then they pulled out the big guns. Turbot is cooked on the bone, which anyone with any sense will tell you is the best way to cook turbot. It comes drenched with brown butter flavoured with garlic. You know it is going to taste great just by looking at it. It does. We communicate only in raised eyebrows and smiles. If anything the monkfish is even better, the meat almost delicate in texture and with a hint of char from the grill. It is served on flatbread coated in a spiced potato puree, with tamarind, spinach, fresh chilli, raita, and bhel puri. It demands to be torn up, folded, and eaten in one. For once I’m not happy about sharing – finding an excuse to travel to the extremities for food like this is the very reason I started this blog. Both of these are served with blackened potatoes that have seen both parts of the grills flame. There is a salad of sorts that we don’t really touch, and a sourdough stick that Claire waxes lyrical about for the rest of the day. We both hum of garlic. Neither of us care.
Afterwards we walk back into town, contemplate walking down to the lighthouse, and then decide that a trip to the nearby Gareth James is far more sensible. It is there we eat the most incredible chocolates over coffee whilst looking at properties, dreaming about a life where Riley’s is within easy reach. I’d seen it on a programe with Michel Roux Jr, another with Rick Stein, and read about it in The Observer. I’ve always wondered if fish cooked over a bit of wood and a flaming grill could be that good. It is. It really is. Riley’s Fish Shack is a little bit of perfection in the most idyllic location. Life really doesn’t get any more rewarding.