Has anyone been to Whitstable? It’s lovely. A little fishing town with a rich heritage of shellfish, I visited for the first time last week and liked everything about it. Even the slightly mucky looking beach that was littered with people cockling and crabbing and the Mr Whippy van on the concrete harbour.
It turned out we’d arrived in Whitstable slap bang in the middle of the Oyster Festival, and this could have accounted for why everyone seemed to be in such a good mood. For two jaded Londoners it was quite a spectacle to see people actually smiling as they went about their days. But then, when you live by the sea, eat a lot of shellfish and pubs play live jazz in the afternoons I see no reason to be miserable.
After a leisurely stroll around the town and the sea front, a chuckle at the predominance of seaside tat (painted pebbles, ‘To The Beach’ signs and some hilarious clam puppets), we settled down for lunch at Wheelers, which I’d been told by several people was absolutely unmissable.
In the middle of the high street, pale pink and chocolate boxy, Wheelers seats only 14 people with room for another 3 or so at the fish bar. It’s BYOB and cash only, and though I don’t see how they can make much money without the wine mark-ups, I’m not complaining! The food is…amazing. I can’t really think of a better adjective. You’d be happy eating it at a Michelin restaurant, except here you feel like you’re in somebody’s sitting room – there are bits of old ship on the walls, dusty lamps and faded pictures.
It took us a good half hour to decide what we wanted since absolutely everything on the menu sounded delicious, but we finally settled on scallops with maple glazed pig’s cheeks, a Thai crab cake and 2 sets of John Dory with prawn stuffed courgette flower, fennel puree and samphire. Everything was beautiful, from the presentation, to the prawns perfectly cooked in the courgette flower, to the way they’d rendered every bit of fat in the pig’s cheeks so all you got was succulent, sticky pork. I would quite happily have paid double. And I loved the fact it was so small, it made it feel like we were in some exclusive pop up restaurant. One that had been there for 150 years.
Neither of us could manage pudding, so we settled for a bracing walk and a Mr Whippy once the main courses had settled. Yes, that’s right, I ate a Mr Whippy. It’s something about the childish nostalgia of the seaside – it demands ice cream flavoured chemicals.
So if you’re down Whitstable way, I would really recommend booking in at Wheeler’s. You need to plan ahead though. Those 14 seats get bagsied early. And if you can find the clam puppets, your day might just come close to perfect.