Lovefood’s Charlotte reports on where best to eat, drink and sleep in the seaside town famed for its fresh oysters.
Whitstable: a charming coastal resort, just 60-or-so miles east of London. Oysters are as synonymous with Whitstable as pork pies are with Melton Mowbray. The town, which dates back to before the Domesday Book, hosts an oyster festival every year based on an old Norman ceremony of thanksgiving hosted by local fishermen to celebrate their survival at sea.
It’s the native or flat oyster (‘Ostrea edulis’) that has flourished in Whitstable since Roman times, thanks to the town’s favoured position on the Thames Estuary. They’re only fished in the winter months, and so it’s the more common and resilient rock oyster, available year-round, that’s consumed in abundance during the summertime Whitstable Oyster Festival (from 26th July to 1st August this year).
Where to slurp
So who serves the best oysters in Whitstable? With its baby pink and blue façade, it’s hard to miss Wheelers Oyster Bar on the High Street. It claims to be the oldest restaurant in town and diners can choose to eat in the small ‘Oyster parlour’ or the ‘Seafood Bar’, the latter of which offers a selection of light dishes such as spicy crusted squid or tempura soft shell crab, as well as an a la carte menu. It’s all BYO and you can ring ahead to order your seafood, which can be packed up for a picnic if desired.
Manager Delia Fitt and chef Mark Stubbs are both oyster aficionados. Together with the late Mandy Bruce they co-wrote an award-winning cookery book, The Oyster Seekers, in 2003, and Mark runs the Shoreline School of Cookery from the Wheelers kitchen, focusing entirely on the preparation and cooking of seafood. Unusually, you can’t book a specific time to eat at Wheelers. Instead, there are four sittings throughout the day, with last orders at 7:30pm.
If you’d prefer to eat oysters long into the night, try The Royal Native Oyster Stores restaurant right by the sea. The service gets mixed reviews, but nevertheless it’s always brimming with customers eating briny oysters plucked from the pebbly beach just metres away. Plus the setting is stunning: you sit inside an historic, warehouse-style building, which has stood proud in the face of bracing British winds for decades. Tables are decorated with checkered cloths, and there’s a definite air of maritime shabby chic about the place – much like the rest of Whitstable. All oysters come served with a little mignonette sauce and Tabasco, and the nutmeg-flavoured potted crab is well worth a try, as is whatever the ‘fish of the day’ happens to be. But be prepared for a pretty hefty bill.
From Mediterranean to fish and chips
There are ample Whitstable eateries for those who don’t like seafood. Chef Nikki Billington and front-of-house Paul Watson are the couple behind JoJo’s in Tankerton, a trendy, cosy restaurant which excels in meat and fish tapas. Everything is cooked with a Mediterranean twist, and dishes include the likes of mutton and feta koftas, marinated olives and authentic chorizo, plus sardines with lemon and black pepper. The wine list is adequate, but you can bring your own wine, champagne or prosecco if you’re picky (but not beer, strangely). When it’s not serving dinner, JoJo’s becomes a coffee shop selling wedges of homemade cake, pastries, hot sandwiches and, of course, coffee.
Other than that, the charming Harbour Street is crammed with other places to eat, such as English’s of Whitstable, a sweet little tapas bar which serves particularly good sherry. The Sportsman gastropub is well respected, both by visitors and locals alike, and can get as busy as The Royal Native Oyster Stores. The Old Neptune is another decent pub worth a visit, especially considering its location slap-bang on the beach. You can sup your local ale among the seagulls outside on one of the wooden benches. For lunch, Samphire is a great option. It describes itself as ‘a Kentish bistro’ and sources most, if not all, of its ingredients locally from farms, foragers, gamekeepers and fishermen. Expect light dishes such as: antipasti; chicken livers on toast with marsala; melon, feta and pumpkin salad; and mussels with white wine.
A trip to the seaside isn’t complete without fish and chips. The best chippie in town has to be VC Jones on Harbour Street, which has been at the heart of the town for over 50 years – as is made obvious by the original, swinging sign stuck to the shop’s front. Their chips are fat and squidgy (remember, chips are just as important as fish) and the fish is fresh and local. The staff are amongst the chirpiest in Whitstable, and there’s a back room café for those rare few who don’t want to eat their fish and chips on the beach.
Delis, cheese and ice cream
No doubt responding to the swarms of city folk flocking to their town every weekend, a fair few modern delis have popped up in Whitstable in recent years. David Brown’s Deli is the place for Spanish and Italian produce, including fine olive oils, locally brewed beers, hung meats and freshly baked breads. The Cheese Box with its quaint façade and welcoming, knowledgeable staff is the best destination for fromage. Samples are generously sized, and despite its small size the shop sells a wide range of hard, semi-hard, washed, soft, blue, goat's and sheep's cheese, plus a range of chutneys, quince and crackers. The perfect stop-off if you’re planning a beach picnic.
Ice cream is good in Whitstable too. Sundae Sundae is a charming shop, with an old-fashioned feel and generous scoop sizes. As should be the case with all seaside ice cream shops, you can also buy your bucket and spade here, as well as beach toys, lollies, vintage crockery and all manner of beach hut paraphernalia. And, as with all the other delis mentioned above, it’s only a pebble’s throw from the beach.
A bed for the night
Whitstable is a mighty fine day trip, but if you want to take in the surrounding delights of the likes of Canterbury, Faversham or Herne Bay, you can easily turn a day into a weekend break.
Trouble is, what with Whitstable being so small there isn’t a multitude of places to stay. You can rent a sweet seaside cottage, but most only allow guests to book for a minimum of three nights. There are a few B&Bs here and there, but your best bet is Hotel Continental, a welcoming old hotel on Beach Walk which gives guests the option of staying in one of their beach huts on the seafront.
Seeing as parking in Whitstable is surprisingly easy (the main car park is a three minute walk from Harbour Street), it might be a better idea to stay over in bigger, brighter Canterbury, with its myriad options, and take the fairly scenic 20-minute drive to Whitstable in the morning.
A cottage made for two
One Canterbury B&B with a difference is Number 7 Longport, just opposite St Augustine’s Abbey. Instead of one room, guests (a maximum of two and a baby) are given the keys to a petite, incredibly endearing 15th-century ‘micro’ cottage. It comes complete with medieval front door, cosy living room with wood burner, cleverly converted modern wet room, and a chic upstairs bedroom adorned with local artwork, suitably creaky floorboards, and both a handmade mattress and down feather pillows atop the double bed.
The little cottage looks out to a pretty patio garden and the main house, where owner Ursula Wacher serves breakfast in the morning. And my, what a breakfast it is. The comments book at Number 7 Longport is crammed with praise for Ursula’s cooking. Among other treats includes her still-warm fruit muffins baked that morning; homemade bread which Ursula prepares the day before; homemade granola with great big chunks of coconutty oats; fruits poached in aromatic lavender syrup; local sausages and bacon with just-down-the-road eggs, scrambled into deep yellow clouds; honey from a friend’s beehive; locally-pressed apple juice; and, last but not least, a box of perfect macarons to take away with you, baked by Ursula’s chef daughter. “If you’re going to do something, do it well” is Ursula’s attitude – especially where food is concerned.
What with a breakfast like that, and the fact that guests can roam a two-storey cottage as opposed to one en suite room, a price of £90 a night for two people, or £60 for one, is, I think, more than reasonable. Ursula also owns a couple of proper-sized cottages nearby (14 and 15 Love Lane, both of which sleep five), which can also be rented on a B&B basis.
It’s always hard to include everywhere in our ‘Eat and Drink’ features. Can you recommend anywhere else to eat, drink or sleep in Whitstable? Or have we hit the nail on the head? Talk to us in the Comments box below.
Oyster image courtesy of David Monniaux
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