Last summer, I was sat on a wooden table on the road that hugs Margate Sands, down on the Kent coast. The sun was showing off, its buttery rays casting the beach and the buildings in golden splendour as it began to slip below the horizon for the night.
I took a bite of a hefty tranche of crab tart, delicately daubed with aioli as golden as the sunset. And for a split second everything just… stopped. The combination of the tart and the setting rendered me speechless.
"I mean, it is just a crab tart," laughs Lee Coad, the co-owner of Dory's, the restaurant that so graciously provided me with a dinner that I'm still waxing lyrical about almost a year later, "but I have to admit it is a good one."
Call me dramatic, but in July 2020, after the first lockdown, when everything seemed so full of promise, that crab tart was an escape. It was a perfect moment that made me remember life isn't all bad, that good times have been before and good times will come again. And it was a moment that was sorely needed.
With holidays and most normal fun off the cards, much like many of us, I'd got myself into a eat-sleep-work-repeat routine, speckled with a lot of drinking in parks.
Even when I'd thought about booking a staycation or getaway, it seemed difficult and too uncertain. The classic choices of Cornwall and Devon were too difficult to get to, too expensive and, most problematic of all, fully booked.
The classic choices of Cornwall and Devon were too difficult to get to, too expensive and fully booked
So instead, I found an alternative: the Kent coast, only two hours from my home in North London, by car or by train (an extra plus: you don't even have to book rail tickets in advance), and ideal for both day trips and longer sojourns.
And happily I discovered a destination with restaurants as spectacular as Dory's, where I also hoovered up plump oysters; marinated sardines perched atop tomatoes and crusty bread; tiny, flavour-packed smoked prawn heads; and a glossy saffron-coloured stew with mussels.
Where to eat in Margate, Kent
"We do very simple food," says Coad. "We can get it in the morning and cook it and get it out the door for lunch. Our food can be that simple." Throw in the Margate sunsets and you've got a meal that may be "simple", but is anything but ordinary.
Dory's sits less than a five-minute walk from its older sibling, Angela's, which is smaller with less outdoor space. "Because they're so close to each other, they just feel like an extension. The staff go between the two places, the food goes between the two places, they use the same ingredients, because that's what we get from the farms."
There's a slight difference in that Angela's – where you can book a table (although good luck with that) – is more like a three-course dinner, with hot food cooked in the charcoal oven.
"Dory's is more raw, pickled and cured food, with a bit of baking like with the tart. It's not some sort of superstar London restaurant, but it's a nice little thing that's formed," he says modestly.
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"We've got two lovely little neighbourhood restaurants where the food is good and the people are nice, and it's a nice working environment."
This is the general vibe in the city of Margate, a former Victorian seaside resort that's been undergoing a renaissance. There are no chain restaurants here, and businesses are largely independent.
This immunity to bigger brands is attributed to buildings being on the small side – most of the restaurants have 24 seats, max.
This puts a very physical obstacle to Margate losing its indie charm – although this 'charm' is different to what you might expect. On a hot summer's day, Margate's sprawling, sandy beach (a definite asset given many around here are pebbled) is packed with people in kitschy, brightly coloured swimwear.
A quaint Cornish town this is not; beachgoers blast garage music from boomboxes, drip with gold jewellery and clutch cans of Stella. This is a town with personality in spades – brightly coloured plastic beach spades, to be precise.
"It's a bit like Hackney-on-Sea"
But scattered among the locals you'll find a different, more familiar breed: the hipster, tattooed, pierced and wearing clothing I'm not cool enough to pull off.
Creatives (and cooks) have been making their way down from London in search of some fun in the sun for several years now, but given a summer where travel abroad has been difficult, to say the least, the area is truly having its time in the sun.
"It's a bit like Hackney-on-Sea," says Natalia Ribbe, who set up Barletta, which now operates two spots: Barletta on the Roof, and a site on the rooftop of the Turner Contemporary Gallery (told you it was arty), newly opened for summer 2021.
Ribbe is also known for her work with Ladies of Restaurants, an initiative working to address the gender pay gap within the hospitality industry, and at Barletta she serves up food and fun in equal measure. Dishes remind you of a Mediterranean holiday (remember those?) – confit cod cheeks with red pepper, brown butter and radishes; salted bass and chorizo croquettes; mussels, 'nduja and white wine.
Her partner in business and in life is Barletta's chef, Jackson Berg. He worked at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen before gaining more experience at other well-known London spots: Quality Chop House, St. John Bread and Wine, and Hoi Polloi.
Alongside Angela's and Dory's, there's Bottega Caruso, a restaurant, deli and pastificio inspired by Campania in southern Italy; Mala Kaffe, a Scandi coffee shop; and gorgeous pub The Rose in June, which had a residency from Barletta. This is a town that more than pulls its punches when it comes to great places to eat and drink.
Where to eat in Deal, Kent
But so does the rest of the Kentish coast. You'll find familiar London names cropping up all over the place (as well as local chefs that are excellent in their own right). A half-hour drive away in the tiny town of Deal, Nuno Mendes – formerly of Chiltern Firehouse and currently of Maos in Shoreditch – partnered with new-ish boutique hotel The Rose on its menu.
The food here is inspired by the local area with Portugese flair. Brown butter-roasted brill with melted onions and sea beet; local squid with poached salsify; and skate wing in garlic broth appeared on the seasonal summer menu last year, along with crispy, juicy schnitzel, and a gorgeously fragrant fig leaf ice cream for sweetest of endings.
Chefs don't just like cooking in the area, they even come here on holiday too – veggie pioneer Anna Jones stayed at The Rose when writing her most recent cookbook, while another cookbook author Rosie Birkett has lived in Deal for years, singing the praises of local producers like The Black Pig butcher.
The Rose in Deal – in pictures:
This being the British coast, there are loads of excellent fish and chip shops, but swerve the seaside stereotype and you'll find plenty of interesting offerings. Over the road from The Rose is The Frog & Scot, which has a strong French influence, as well as the sister wine bar Le Pinardier, which used to be an outpost of Borough Wines.
The French influence (unsurprising given the proximity to Dover) continues at No Name Deli, where I pick up charcuterie, cheese and crusty baguette for a bougie beach lunch on Deal's sharply sloping pebbled beach after a crisp morning swim, having driven down to Deal for a mid-week stay in one of The Rose's beautiful rooms.
From here, I head onto Margate for an afternoon eating ice cream (Ramsey + Williams is a must, and is conveniently just around the corner from Dory's if you fancy a second dessert) and perusing the many, many vintage shops.
But Deal and Margate are just a taster of the offerings to be found here. Folkestone and Canterbury both have their own burgeoning foodie enclaves (check out the latter's The Good Shed), and you can't talk about Kent without mentioning Stephen Harris's Michelin-starred pub The Sportsman in Seasalter, near Whitstable.
Sure, Kent's food scene isn't new, but the complications of travel abroad during the time of Covid mean it's finally getting its dues. There's so much to explore (and eat), and it's just so convenient.
For 2021, I've shunned a trip to Spain in favour of a week-long road trip through the area to take them all in. But thanks to the easy train links to London, you could equally pick them off one at a time through weekend or day trips.
Another way to make the most of it is to do it the slow way and walk. The 11-kilometre Beach Roamer walk starts out in Ramsgate and finishes Margate. There are loads of places to stop and linger on the way, but a good lunch break comes at Broadstairs, with seafood café Wyatt & Jones and ice cream at Morelli's Gelato.
The route follows the coastline and is primed for stopping off for snacks and swims – and if you're lucky, at the end you'll be rewarded with a show-stopping sunset, and a life-changing crab tart.