At the Fish Plaice
Around three is a good time to visit the Fish Plaice in the Cambridge Heath Rd, between Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. By then the lunchtime rush is over and you have the chance of a leisurely chat with Andy & Nitsa, the couple who have run this place together since 1974 – as I did yesterday, when I took the opportunity to slip behind the counter and see life from the other side of the fish fryer. I discovered it was an ideal place to spend an afternoon on an occluded June day, watching the passersby with their noses set towards Whitechapel and greeting regulars who were seeking consolation in fish cakes and saveloys for a Summer that is not quite working out as it should.
Over the years, all manner of private jokes and rituals have evolved here. “The police want to speak with you, Andy,” called Nitsa casually through the curtain of plastic ribbons when I arrived, as she had done countless times before. And then Andy came out and introduced himself with an eager smile, “I’m Andy, everyone knows me as Andy, my dad was Andy,” – just in case there was any confusion. And when Beryl, a regular customer of thirty-eight years standing, arrived with the greeting, “Got a fish cake?” and asking “Are the chips fresh?”, Andy turned aside with a twinkle in his eye and adopted a loud stage whisper, saying,“Give her the old ones, Nitsa! - which filled Beryl with speechless delight.
Be informed, this is not a fancy fish & chip shop. The decor has not been updated since they opened nearly forty years ago, yet this only adds to the appeal – because it is immaculately clean and cared for, which makes it a place where everyone feels welcome. “Look at this!” exclaimed Andy, taking his bare hand, and – inexplicably – reaching under the fish frier, before - alarmingly – rubbing it upon the floor and then – in a theatrical coup – holding it up jubilantly to reveal an entirely clean hand.
Andy knows as much about fish & chips as it is possible to know, because fish & chips are his culture and his life.“My father had a fish & chip shop in Salmon Lane and we lived over the shop.” he explained, “All the family were in fish & chips, my uncles all had shops. I used to clean potatoes first thing in the morning and help out again after school.”
“Sometimes, I used to get up at four and go with my dad to Smithfield Market to get chickens.” he continued fondly, “Then he’d take me down to Billingsgate Fish Market in the City where we’d meet all his brothers and uncles buying fish, and afterwards he’d take me for a good breakfast in a workmen’s cafe and we’d be back by seven in the morning.”
Yet before he opened up this shop with his wife Nitsa, Andy tried other careers. He trained in motor engineering, and became ladies hairdresser in Whitechapel, off Commercial St - “It was all slums down there in those days.” Next he became a driving instructor and worked at Plessey in electronics too. “You do some crazy stuff when you are young!” he informed me, in authoritative verdict upon these trivial early diversions before he settled down to a lifetime of fish & chips.
“All my family are in restaurants, but I had no clue about fish & chip shops until I met, Andy,” admitted Nitsa with a flirtatious laugh,“By now, we are a good team. When we come in the morning, we know exactly what to do and we do it in no time.”
“I do all the heavy stuff, filleting fish, mixing the batter and chipping, while Nitsa prepares the fryer,” added Andy, “She’s as quick as two people serving, three of my cousins came down to help out once and they couldn’t keep up with her.”
As will be self-evident by now, Andy & Nitsa have very high standards, priding themselves on the superlative quality of their fish & chips which are keenly priced. Nitsa fried me a piece of cod in batter with chips, and it was creamy with a good chewy batter. As I sat in the corner enjoying my late lunch, Andy explained The Fish Plaice is the closest fish & chip shop to the site of London’s first ever fish & chip shop, that opened in Cleveland Way – just round the corner – where Russian Jewish immigrants had the idea to serve both fried fish and chips together from the same shop in the nineteenth century.
“We like it,” admitted Andy, turning contemplative and catching Nitsa’s eye for a shared smile while I concentrated on my lunch, “We’ve been doing it so many years. We love it when when people come back, because it means they appreciated what they had.” All three of us sat together, enjoying the quiet of the afternoon in the empty shop and watching the ceaseless parade outside moving back and forth between Whitechapel and Bethnal Green.
“It’s a nice trade, fish and chips.” conceded Nitsa with a soulful smile, sitting with her arms crossed, casting her blue eyes around the shop where they spent the last thirty-eight years and almost speaking to herself, “We are happy here. The people are very nice and most of the customers are our friends. You always ask after everybody’s families.”
Nitsa fries me a piece of fish in batter.
Andy - “All my family were in fish & chips”
Nitsa, widely known amongst the customers as “Aunty” and “Mammy.”
The Fish Plaice, 86 Cambridge Heath Rd.