Say the name ‘Bettys‘ and most people will inevitably start waxing lyrical about afternoon tea, ‘Fat Rascals’ and gorgeous cakes. A few might not have heard of it, but it seems plenty of people have been at least once. I can see why. Established exactly 100 years ago in Harrogate, it’s become a bit of an institution. There are now six – but only in Yorkshire. I hear they refuse to open anywhere else.
Given its fame and general much-loved reputation, I’m surprised I hadn’t made it to Bettys previously. Especially as I only went to uni a few miles down the road in Leeds and some of my bestest pals still live up there. For whatever reason, I hadn’t, but on a recent roadtrip ‘oop North’ with my ma, we decided to divert via Harrogate on the way home and popped in.
We nearly didn’t, thanks to the queue outside. But years of practice means Bettys has a fairly efficient system going on. In fact, if such efficiency was put into place in, say, some shops, train stations, and entertainment venues, life would run a lot smoother.
It’s a pretty building, as you’d expect in somewhere like Harrogate, and the interior is exactly as I imagined. A huge space full of people predominantly there not for the food, but the experience. If you’re looking for somewhere swish to relax, I probably wouldn’t suggest this. The sheer volume of people spread across several floors and the army of staff ensuring those people get fed and watered within a reasonable time means that it has a frenetic background sound and feel more reminiscent of a transport hub than a restaurant or cafe, but this somehow doesn’t render it unpleasant, just part of the experience.
We may have first joined the Bettys queue because of its reputation, but it was the menu that ensured we stayed in it. I had expected the quintessential list of afternoon teas, sandwiches and cakes, but was surprised to realise that Bettys was actually established by a Swiss baker who travelled to England in 1907 hoping to start his own business. In his honour, Swiss influences run through the Bettys menu, elevating it from hackneyed, traditional cafe treats to something slightly more impressive.
Don’t worry, if it’s a sandwich and cake you want, you can still have that, along with classic dishes like a Bettys Yorkshire Rarebit or a fish and chips. But you might want to opt for something that you can’t get in pretty much every other cafe in Yorkshire and beyond and try a rosti, one of the aforementioned Swiss dishes that Bettys has chosen to keep on the menu as a marker of its own distinctive heritage.
We go for a special rosti of the day, served with asparagus, as well as a Wensleydale & Watercress Quiche made at Bettys own craft bakery. The rosti was everything I had hoped – grated potato mixed with gruyère and cream, then pan fried and topped with seared asparagus and a handful of chopped asparagus stems.
Despite the cream and cheese, it was light and delicate in both flavour and texture – soft and yielding inside, with contrasting crispiness on the outside. As tempting as the version with bacon and melted raclette cheese would have been, the simple asparagus allowed the rosti to stand alone as the simple delight it should be.
The quiche, too, was a real delight. All-butter pastry, crumbly and indulgent, encasing the filling that married the slightly sweet, salt gruyere with a peppery hint from the watercress. Tasty, but it was the salads that were the real hit. Crunchy cucumber with the centre that so often turns it into a watery mess removed, a crunchy carrot salad laced with fresh, fragrant coriander, and a mixed bean creation in a tangy dressing with cashew nuts to add texture.
So good were the salads that we squabbled more over those than the quiche itself and at £10.50 for the whole plate, I have to disagree with the man who had been waiting behind us in the queue but told his wife Bettys was over-priced and they’d be going elsewhere.
Obviously, a trip somewhere like this wouldn’t be complete without an attempt to give ourselves an insane sugar spike, so we decided coffee and cake was the way forward. For mum, a chocolate and passion fruit bombe (with optional extra whipped cream dolloped on top) that didn’t stick around long enough for me to get a picture of (you can see it in the distance above).
I stuck on my Swiss theme, deciding I’m unlikely to get stuff like this elsewhere, whereas I can find macarons, eclairs, vanilla slices and tarts in plenty of other places (some might argue not so good, but I’m willing to take that gamble).
The Engadine Torte is described as a Swiss speciality with layers of hazelnut meringue and almond buttercream, topped with hazelnut Medicis. Folks, if you struggle with super sugary things that send your heart racing, make you sweat under the eyes (yes, that is a thing) and make you feel like you might get toothache instantly just because of the concentration of sucrose in your mouth, then steer clear. The Engadine may look harmless but this is a weapon of mass sugar destruction disguised as a cake.
Yes, the hazelnut is there, but the overwhelming sensation is sweet, sweet and more sweet, and it’s no mean portion. In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have it again, but washed down with a good strong cup of coffee, it certainly achieved the desired sugar spike.
Obviously we couldn’t leave without a trip to the Bettys shop, where I wanted to see some of those famous ‘Fat Rascals’ people keep telling me about. In case you’re wondering, they’re just scones. Big, fat fruity scones, but just scones. Great if that floats your boat but far more impressive to me is all the other patisserie on offer, which we may or may not have grabbed to take home for Mr M.
So yes, Bettys is great. It has history, it ticks all the boxes of a traditional tearoom, where sugar is king and you can enjoy taking a trip back in time through one of those institutions that has survived for a century and will probably continue to thrive.
This is, I reckon, partly down to the clever way that Bettys balances its love of tradition and its own story with the way times have changed. I imagine there aren’t too many places like this, where you can find a breakfast menu that served up hot buttered pikelets, Swiss rostis and crushed avocado on toast, mixing different influences and eras in exactly the way that I’m sure Bettys’ creator may have hoped when he first arrived in good old England.
Happy 100th birthday Bettys – long may you last.
We paid in full at Bettys. They didn’t know I was a blogger.