A decade ago, Whitstable showed few signs of the gentrification that has consumed it since, bringing with it locust clouds of city dwellers, Bugaboos, and gastro-tourists. The Old Neptune and Tankerton Arms used to be good friends in my student days, when a predilection for pints on the seafront overwhelmed any desire for good food. A bag of chips would do nicely, thanks.
This time the pilgrimage was for sustenance, sea, and sun, not intoxication. I hardly recognised the place (sobriety could be to blame, admittedly). It was a last-minute trip, giving us no time to book the tremendous Sportsman in nearby Seasalter, Samphire, or JoJo's, so we wandered the seafront, seeking oysters. Spying some rather nice specimens in the entrance of Whitstable Oyster Company, we thought it a safe bet.
The moment the bread arrived our hearts sank (nasty gluey supermarket baguettes with tiny foil-wrapped butter parcels). Heart rates rose when we read the menu. The prices for simple fish dishes are astounding. Deep-fried squid - £10.50, Smoked eel - £10.50, Fish and chips - 16.50, Baked halibut £24.50. We ordered a plate of 6 local oysters (£7.50), half a lobster with potato salad (£16.50), and Fish and chips. We waited. And waited a little more. 45 minutes later these arrived, and our chagrin was not met with an apology:
Better than any oysters I've gulped in London (sorry, Bentley's). Fat, briny, and incredibly sweet and meaty. But credit goes to the seabed, not the restaurant. All they had to do was open them (and it took them close to an hour).
Fish (cod) and chips were frustratingly mediocre, given our proximity to the shore. The fish batter was dense, and the chips soggy. The fish was overcooked. We'd have done better to grab some from the nearby seafood shack for a fiver. The accompanying mushy peas and tartare sauce were so bland I've completely forgotten whether they were any good.
The lobster was succulent and meaty, the potato salad poor (undercooked and underseasoned). Again, little or no credit to the restaurant. Or shall I be generous? They are good at boiling a crustacean.
Our bill for these dishes, and half a pint of oyster stout: £56. We felt well and truly mugged. Whitstable Oyster Company was full of wealthy tourists, who seemed to have no qualms with the pricing. They're welcome to it, but please don't join them.
We dropped in at the famous Wheelers Oyster Bar on the high street a few hours later, to pick up some fish to take home. A fiver's worth of prawns survived the trip back to London in a cool bag, and I ravished them immediately and inelegantly at the kitchen sink, with Wheelers' homemade mayo. The finest, sweetest prawns I've ever eaten. Worth a dozen overpriced lobsters.
Next time, we plan to head straight to Wheelers to pick up a dozen oysters, some prawns, and a pot of mayonnaise, before heading to the beach with a few bottles of local ale, and a bag of chips. I'd be hard-pressed to dream up a better meal.