Beside the seaside: Jay Rayner’s 10 best value places to eat around the British coastline

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The Guardian

As islanders, many of us have an intensely romantic relationship with the sea, even though we may not set eyes on it from one end of the year to the other. When we imagine ourselves on the shore, we envisage being in a simpler place; somewhere less challenging, somewhere built for calmness. Certainly, a lot of us have a fantasy summer life and a part of that fantasy involves eating great food by the sea, at a price that will not force us to ponder the sale of a vital organ. Happily, it doesn’t have to remain a fantasy. Here are 10 recommendations for great places along our beautiful coastline where the food is terrific and the price qualifies as great value. Here you’ll find gloriously thick crab sandwiches for just a few quid, alongside keenly priced cheese toasties that will sustain you through Britain’s quixotic summer weather. There is, of course, fish and chips; there has to be fish and chips. But there are also seafood platters, south-east Asian curries, intriguing small plates and so much more.

For sake of doubt, these aren’t listings cobbled together from a reading of vaguely convincing websites. I’ve been lucky enough to eat the food provided by every one of them, often more than once. Yes, it’s a personal selection, but it’s one that’s been properly road-tested, in the service of proper appetite. You may have your own favourites. We’d love to hear about them. These, however, in no particular order, are mine.

No 1 Cromer, Norfolk

Fish and chips from No 1 Cromer. Photograph: Sonja Horsman/The Observer

At his flagship restaurant, Morston Hall, Galton Blackiston does all the shiny evolved things you would expect of a chef with the usual stars and garlands to his name. No 1 Cromer is a different matter entirely. Yes, it’s somewhat glossier than your average chippy, with prices to match, but it does do the basics very well indeed. Starters include cockle popcorn with chilli vinegar, or salt and pepper squid, both for £8.50. Follow that with a fair old slab of cod, haddock or plaice with chips for around £15.

If that price risks making you choke on your gherkins, go for the takeaway option, where the fish is around £7.50. You can also get battered brie for £4.20 and scampi for £7. During the summer months it runs Ice Cromer, its ice-cream kiosk on the seafront with a choice of 15 flavours including salted peanut butter and rhubarb and custard.
1 New St, Cromer NR27 9HP; 01263 515983; no1cromer.com

Michael Wan’s Wok Inn, Blackpool, Lancashire

If you want cheap fish and chips of distinctly variable quality, or indeed anything that’s been for a lengthy swim in the deep fat fryer, you really won’t need my help locating it on the seafront in Blackpool. Just sniff the air and follow your nose. But you may crave something else and Michael Wan’s Wok Inn is definitely something else. It’s a spin-off from Michael Wan’s Mandarin, one of Britain’s most venerable Cantonese restaurants, located in the centre of town.

Michael Wan’s Wok Inn, Blackpool. Photograph: Tom Martin/The Observer

The Wok Inn, launched by the next generation of the same family, is a knowingly raucous and eclectic take on the food of south-east Asia, and at a very decent price. The interior is a brilliantly garish mess of painted and poster-splattered corrugated iron, dangling lampshades, fairy lights, mismatched furniture, white tiling and the occasional dragon motif. Both sets of loos are home to a shrine to the phallus. It comes with the territory, that territory being Blackpool.

The food, which comes in Lancashire portions, is what matters. Start with its cloud-like char sui buns for £4.95, or be brave and have the salt and chilli duck tongues for £7.10. Make sure to have a heaving plate of its old-school spare ribs, glazed in the shiniest and brightest of barbecue sauces for £8.80. They’re exactly like fabulous Chinese restaurant spare ribs used to be, before decorum took hold.

Or just go for one of the main dishes from the list headed Around Asia, which cost in the mid-teens but are very much a full meal in themselves. Many of them are served in multi-layered tiffin boxes: the beef rendang, wafting heavily of freshly roasted spices, comes with the flakiest of roti canai, domes of steamed rice and a sweet-sour crunchy salad, all stacked one atop the other. It’s the same story with a massaman curry, made with chicken on the bone, and the pad thai or nasi goreng. The Wok Inn is a true original.
118 Promenade, Blackpool FY1 1RA; 01253 627368; michaelwanswokinn.co.uk

Fish and Chips at 149, Bridlington, Yorkshire

People get very competitive when it comes to the knotty business of recommending the best chippies. Our relationship with this seaside classic can be extremely personal and emotional, so choosing one is a risky business. Therefore, let me say that the British coast is punctuated by many truly brilliant exponents of the noble craft, and you will doubtless have your own favourite. However, I’ve chosen Fish and Chips at 149, because I once spent a terrific day there learning the ropes as a fryer, shortly after it had been named the best fish and chip shop in Britain. The shop is located in town, but my main memory, after a day’s hard graft, was taking my paper-wrapped package down to the Bridlington seafront and eating it while staring out at the waters. Bliss.

Jay Rayner working at 149 Fish & Chips at 149 in Bridlington in 2011. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

The regular cod is £5.79 with the challengingly large coming in at £6.39. Impeccable chips are £2.39 and, because this is Yorkshire, are fried in beef dripping. All accessories are present and correct, including curry sauce and mushy peas. The best deal is the basic fish and chips with one side at £6.59. It’s all good.
149 Marton Rd, Bridlington YO16 7DJ (also at Barnard Castle and Catterick Garrison); 149fishandchips.co.uk

The Urchin, Hove, East Sussex

This blocky corner pub in a quiet residential area may be a couple of streets inland, but no matter. It’ll bring the sea to your table. The seafood cooking is bold, boisterous and exceedingly well priced. The short standing menu of salt and pepper squid, moules mariniere and the like is always supplemented by an extensive list of specials. It might be giant tiger prawns with chilli oil for £7 or roast scallops with oyster mushrooms and chicken fat butter for £10. Do try the pleasingly messy Malaysian king prawns, in a portion that’s very much big enough to share.

There is a concise wine list but the pub is much better known for an obsession with beer. So developed is that obsession, it even has a microbrewery in the basement. That means its own brew, Larrikin, is always on tap. For sunny days there’s a beer garden.
15-17 Belfast St, Hove BN3 3YS; 01273 241881; urchinpub.co.uk

The Cheesy Toast Shack, St Andrews, Fife

The Cheesy Toast Shack in St Andrews. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer

There are few food items better engineered for the elemental challenges of a trip to the Scottish seaside than a cheese toastie, and there are few places that do them better than these two takeaway operations on the beach in St Andrews. These are serious items, built to keep you going as the winds blow and the sea crashes. The bread is cut thick. It’s bronzed and a little oily outside, with a deep filling. And all of them cost around a fiver.

You can go for something pretty basic from the regularly changing menu; perhaps the Scottish cheddar with smoked ham and pickle. Or you can be a little more adventurous. There’s the manchego with chorizo, red pepper and jalapeno chutney, or the New Yorker made with sliced swiss, pastrami, American mustard and sauerkraut.

The Cheesy Toast Shack’s toasties. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

If it’s available, try the carb-on-carb joy of the mac’n’cheese, with a dense filling that’s forever attempting to make a bid for freedom. All of them are available in gluten free versions. An absolute gem.
Woodburn Place, St Andrews KY16 8LA (also at Kingsbarns beach); facebook.com/thecheesytoastshack

JoJo’s Meze, Meat & Fish, Tankerton, Kent

JoJo’s in Tankerton, housed in a whitewashed wedge of a building perched above the sea just outside Whitstable has, over the years, become a much-loved local landmark. So beloved is it, indeed, that when the business was under threat last summer because the landlords wanted to sell their building, its fans, including chef Tom Kerridge and Suggs of Madness, came together to help raise £100,000 so they could buy it. The appeal of JoJo’s is straightforward: rustic Mediterranean cooking by chef Nikki Billington, and relaxed easygoing service led by her partner, Paul Watson. There’s a spacious terrace, often used for barbecues, and an airy dining room, with huge picture windows looking out over the waters.

You could knock up a sizable bill if you really put your back into it, but there are bargains to be had. Chief among them is the mixed mezze plate for two or three to share at £35. It includes – deep breath – hummus, tzatziki, crustini, Moroccan bulgur wheat salad, puy lentil shallot and herb salad, an Indian spiced chickpea salad, hunks of various cheeses, cured meats, olives and bread. In other words, the works. Do try to keep space for the calamari; Billington has a rare talent for deep frying, an often underrated skill. And make sure to ask to see the pudding blackboard. She does those properly.
2 Herne Bay Rd, Tankerton CT5 2LQ; 01227 274591; jojosrestaurant.co.uk

Bayside Social, Worthing, West Sussex

Bayside Social, Worthing. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

MasterChef winner Kenny Tutt’s second venture is housed in a handsome glass, wood and steel pavilion right on the beach at Worthing, and is open throughout the year regardless of what the elements may throw at it. In the summer months, however, it becomes an indoor-outdoor space as the floor-to-ceiling doors are thrown wide open. You could get a table and roam through the list of imaginative small plates: roast cod with romesco, burrata with heirloom tomatoes and pesto, or perhaps king prawns with garlic and Aleppo chilli, all at around £8 or £9 a go.

The Hatch at Bayside Social, Worthing. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

But without doubt it’s the takeaway Hatch that really makes the place. From 8.30am until 11.30am it’s a breakfast menu of seriously stacked muffins, with old spot sausages or dry cured bacon, from a fiver. From noon until late afternoon, it’s the lunch menu. There’s a fillet of fish sandwich with chunky tartare and sliced pickles in a brioche bun, a portion of calamari with roasted garlic and lemon aioli, or Bayside tacos filled with spiced tempura jackfruit with cucumber chilli salsa, feta and hot sauce, each for around £7.50.
1 Beach Parade, Worthing BN11 2FG; 01903 867050; baysidesocial.co.uk

The Company Shed, West Mersea, Essex

The Company Shed, West Mersea. Photograph: Michael Brooks/Alamy

The Company Shed was once a secret, fiercely guarded by locals and fans alike, who knew how quickly the queue could build up. Over the years it has become far better known, and perhaps as a result encountered growing competition from other seafood restaurants and cafes nearby, but it remains true to itself. The stars of the show are the groaning crab platter at £20 a head, or the cockles platter at £17.50. Rock oysters, filtered in tanks out the back, are £1.50 each (or £15 for a dozen).

In recent years it has started serving more evolved dishes, including mussels with a garlic and herb crust, scallops in thyme butter with bacon, and pan-fried spicy crab cakes. It is now licensed though you are still welcome to bring your own drinks. As the sign on the wall says, “Help yourself to glasses from the shelf.” It’s that sort of place. There’s also an extensive takeaway menu including a pint of shell-on prawns at £4.40, and closed oysters at 85p each. A word of warning: West Mersea is a tidal island, and at high tide the causeway back to the rest of Essex does get fully submerged. Check the tide timetables, or you may find yourself spending a few more hours there than you planned. It’s no hardship. Just have a few more oysters.
129 Coast Rd, West Mersea CO5 8PA; 01206 382700

Oban Seafood Hut, Oban, Argyll and Bute

‘A very simple affair’: Oban Seafood Hut. Photograph: Martin Hunter

Do not make the pilgrimage down the Calmac ferry pier at Oban on Scotland’s west coast expecting grand facilities. The clue is in the word “hut”. Sometimes it’s referred to as the “green shack”, on account of the bright grass-like colour frontage. Either way it’s a very simple affair: there’s a modern, if temporary looking kitchen with a hatch, and alongside that, a long gnarled wooden table under a canopy structure for when the weather sweeps in, as it often will.

What matters is the serious quality seafood, presented to the very best of its advantage. People talk in hushed tones about the crab sandwich, just £4.95 for something the thickness of an airport novel, only with more drama and intrigue. Or try a sandwich of salmon, hot smoked on site. A heaving portion of fat king scallops, or langoustines from the very waters you eat next to, comes in a deep bath of garlic butter and costs £10.50. Or there’s crab claws at £11.50. The crockery is entirely disposable and the whole experience prone to messiness, but all in the very best way. There’s an awful lot of very good seafood available in Oban; this is the one option you shouldn’t miss.
Calmac Pier, Oban PA34 4DB; 07881 418565; facebook.com/obanseafood.hut.9

The Watch House, St Mawes, Cornwall

Anyone who knows the gorgeous Cornish fishing town of St Mawes will already understand that it doesn’t exactly wear its profound beauty lightly. It has become a favoured tourist spot for those with very deep pockets, and if they find their way to places like the dining room of the Hotel Tresanton or the one at The Idle Rocks, they are most certainly going to need them.

Boats in St Mawes Harbour, Cornwall. Photograph: DG Farquhar/Alamy

But there are cheaper joys to be found here, among them the Watch House, which occupies a former Customs and Excise building in the town square at the heart of the seafront, as it curves away. It’s run by chef Will Gould and general manager John Brown, and in the summer months the restaurant, with its menu of seafood pastas, roasted shellfish platters and grilled scallops with wild garlic butter, becomes booked up very quickly. However, it also has a hatch serving the very best takeaways in town. A proper slab of golden beer-battered cod and chips costs £8.25. It makes its own salmon, pollock and smoked haddock fish cakes with chips or salad for £8.95, and for 75p it will give you extra toppings of aged cheddar, smoked streaky bacon or its own chilli jam. Just be aware: it’s exceedingly popular. On summer evenings, long queues build up and it doesn’t take telephone orders. Still, the view from here on the Roseland Peninsula out over the water will keep you distracted while you wait.
1 The Square, St Mawes TR2 5DJ; 01326 270038; watchhousestmawes.co.uk

July 17, 2022 at 06:38PM Jay Rayner

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