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Spanish sensation

Fish and chips is at the heart of the £10 million redevelopment of Whitley Bay’s much-loved Spanish City

In its heyday, the 1910-built Spanish City in Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear, was a mecca for holidaymakers attracted by its wealth of activities from a funfair and concert hall to the tearoom and ballroom. But after closing down almost 18 years ago, it slowly fell into disrepair, becoming somewhat of a local eyesore.

Now, following a £10 million restoration project, the council-owned building has been restored to its former glory - all 180ft of the renaissance-style frontage as well as the 50ft diameter Grade II listed dome. And thanks to hospitality group Kymel Trading taking over a ten-year lease on the building, a host of new leisure facilities have been introduced, including a fine dining restaurant, a tearoom, event space, a waffle house and Champagne bar. More importantly, underneath the main dome, occupying the best spot, it’s opened a sister restaurant to the well-known and well-respected Trenchers in Whitby.

It’s the only other shop to open under the Trencher’s name in 40 years and, although expansion was something mulled over from time to time, it was always about finding the right location. Sarah Heppell, marketing manager at Kymel Trading, comments: “Trenchers is really successful in Whitby, it’s in a nice location, it has a really good reputation and we have queues out the door midday on a Tuesday. To replicate that elsewhere would have been really hard so we’ve never wanted to push ahead with anything that wasn’t 100% perfect. When Spanish City came up we knew immediately it was the right fit for us. It’s a magnificent building and it’s on the coast by the seaside so it’s a natural fit for fish and chips too.”

The 120 seater restaurant sits right in the centre of the building underneath the famous dome. While the ethos here is the same as Trenchers in Whitby - the focus being on quality MSC certified cod and haddock and locally sourced seasonal potatoes chipped and peeled on site - that’s where the similarities end.

Sarah comments: “It’s a completely different market in Whitley Bay to Whitby, so in Whitby there are coach trips and a lot of older tourists who like what they like, so a lot of things on the menu haven’t really changed over the years, they just get adapted and updated slightly. People like to have their favourite thing, it’s what they come for.

“In Whitley Bay people are coming to have something different and, although we have a lot of traditional food, we also do things like oysters, crabs and lobsters. We have a fresh fish of the day and we do a lot of grilled dishes too. We do fish boards and meat boards as well as vegan options as that’s an emerging trend we’ve taken notice of. So it’s a bit more modern and up-to-date.”

Inside it’s a very different vibe too. Whereas Whitby is very traditional in looks and atmosphere, at Spanish City the restaurant sits just on the right side of fine dining for it to still appeal to the masses. It’s modern, light and airy with splashes of gold leaf gilding and a grand piano for live music. Staff take orders on iPads which are sent directly to a stunning five pan Florigo wall range built to follow the sleek curve of the building. Featuring a built-in griddle and hobs, it’s where all the frying and cooking takes place.

Spanish City also incorporates a takeaway (complete with a second, four pan Florigo range) which opens out directly on to the seafront and serves a slightly different offering once again. It’s much more simplified than in the restaurant but equally focused on traditional fish and chips done well using its own recipe batter and tartare sauce.

The staff here are all predominantly new. Finding 140 new bodies is no easy feat but while the challenge wasn’t necessarily getting people to apply, it was finding those with the necessary skills and passion that Trenchers demands.

Sarah adds: “In Whitby, fish frying is a real skill and it’s a family trade so you get a lot of fish friers who are really good and really understand it. In Whitley Bay it’s not quite the same, it’s difficult to get people who understand what you want to achieve and who have the experience, which means we’ve had to train everyone to understand the fish and chip industry, how big it is and its links to the past.”

The staff here have had the help of the assistant manager of Trenchers Whitby who moved over to the new site, while everyone in the cooking and more senior roles here went down to Whitby Trenchers to learn what goes on there. It’s all helped the opening go smoothly and ensure the high level of service stays the same in Whitby.

Another big challenge Trenchers had to overcome was communicating with locals about the change of use of Spanish City, as Sarah explains: “Whitley Bay was a really popular tourist area back in the day and people had lots of memories here, so when it went into disrepair they were really upset and it became a real sticking point in the local area. The reopening was quite difficult because the venue is very grand, we didn’t want people to think of us as fine dining, we do really good quality food in a great environment. It was getting that mix together and having people understand what we are trying to achieve.”

Having opened just this summer, trade has got off to an exceptionally good start with around 500 covers being served a day, increasing to 1,000 on busy days. Sarah comments: “It’s certainly been our biggest venture so far, it was daunting and it was a new challenge but it’s gone well so far. I wouldn’t say it was so much of a risk, but it was a big undertaking for sure.”

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