The British are famed for their love of the seaside. Victorian photographs abound of woolen-clad bathers, stepping out of private changing huts wheeled to the shore so they can enjoy the water. Colorful 1950’s posters show striped deck chairs atop pebbled beaches, inhabited by working men with rolled up trousers and hankies on their heads. And today, much of the coastline of the U.K. is enjoying a renaissance as Londoners jet out of the smog to enjoy the bracing sea air, and Whitstable in Kent is no exception.
My extended family picked Whitstable as a spot to congregate en masse and celebrate my mum’s 70th birthday this past August. A reasonably painless drive from London if you time it right, Monkey and I arrived at our Airbnb—a lovely basement flat, a stone’s throw from the main street—in the mid-afternoon. And we were lucky with the weather, which is the least dependable part of vacationing in England.
We headed straight for the pub, in this case the Old Neptune, which is right on the beach, and so authentic that the bar inside has a significant slope to it. What do they say about not building on top of sand? I guess the builders didn’t get that memo.
Whitstable has a feel of yesteryear about it, and like so many English towns, is threaded with narrow streets and tiny brick houses. Two up, two down. What more do you need? There’s a generous helping of pubs and restaurants and an overall festive feeling – the gaiety of being at the coast has not been lost as the decades have rolled by.
As with any family gathering—on either my mum or my dad’s side—there is an enormous amount of food involved. With 12 of us in total, I insisted (to the annoyance of some) that we should book all our meals ahead as “party of 12” doesn’t always get the warmest of welcomes on the spur of the moment.
After some research, The Sportsman surfaced as the number one spot to eat in the area, but sadly won’t accommodate more than 10, so we will have to save that for another time. Another must-visit is Wheeler’s Oyster Bar, but that has been undergoing a seven-months’ long renovation and couldn’t handle us either. So instead, we opted for dinner at The Pearson’s Arms by Richard Phillips, which is right in the center of town, lunch at perennial favorite, the Whitstable Oyster Co. and an evening get-together at Jojo’s Meze Meat & Fish Restaurant, which is about 3 miles away from the town center.
I’m going to focus on the Whistable Oyster Co. but first, a word or two about The Pearson’s Arms and Jojo’s. The former gets full points for convenience. Walkable from central Whitstable, close to the beach and able to host a large party, it scores well in these areas. On the flip side, the service was rather slow, as I find much of the service in England, and the food was only okay – we had to send back a couple of dishes for heavy over-salting.
Jojo’s is well worth a visit, especially in time for sunset as it has a great view just outside, and if we hadn’t been so full from our lunch at Whitstable Oyster Co. I am sure we would have sampled much more.
The Whistable Oyster Co. is really all about the oysters, duh. But there’s plenty of other fish dishes to choose from. What I really like about it is the fact you can choose lots of things to taste, but it’s not heavy fare. It’s in a light and airy building with lovely open sash windows which let the sea breeze in and look out over the beach. There’s a rustic, aged quality to the place which makes it feel well-visited, in a good way. Red and white checked table clothes or bare pine tables, chalkboard menus and fishing paraphernalia complete the look.
I started with one of their gin cocktails, which I am pretty sure had the word monkey in its name, but I forget now. Anyway, it was delicious and refreshing.
There being 12 of us, we got to sample many things from the menu, or at least take a bite from many plates, which is my favorite way to eat. From traditional fish and chips (£17) – in this case local cod, to chargrilled razor clams( £12.50), to oysters starting at £14 for a half-dozen, and hot smoked salmon salad with dill and lemon (£8.50) – pretty much everything was delicious. If you fancy it, you can even order Maine lobster and local crab.
While there are some lovely desserts on the menu, the staff were kind enough to allow us to serve a cake we’d made for my mum at home, although we did order some beautifully served ice cream to go with it.
All-in-all, I highly recommend checking out the Whitstable Oyster Co. should you have the chance – especially if you’re part of a big group. Eat, drink and contribute to the oyster shell pile out the back.
You can make a reservation here.
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