Where shall we meet ... in Southend?

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The Independent Culture
Our ethnic restaurants have become more indigenous these days than our indigenous ones. Try and get pie, mash and liquor in Southend- on-Sea, for instance, and you'll be drawing a very short straw indeed. Burgers, kebabs, hot dogs, curry and rice, spring rolls, nachos, yes; but, as rain lashes the pier and families in plastic macs make their way from amusement arcade to amusement arcade, this quintessential East End resort can't come up with the East End's old favourite.

So is there anywhere good to eat down here? Well, if you like fish and chips, you have a reasonably good punt at stodge, but the owners of outlets down here seem to have decorated in anticipation of the mother of all fights breaking out: fixed tables, fixed chairs, cruets chained to tabletops. Every cafe is lined with (generally inaccurate) pictures of what their menu is supposed to look like. Every bar has a picture of the owner with a former member of the EastEnders cast.

And at the east end of the seafront lies the remains of a former ballroom originally built on the site of the Southend United football field, and itself swamped by an entertainments complex, the Kursaal. The Kursaal is a lovely piece of art deco - multicoloured glass dome, curly ironwork, ornate plaster-work - slathered over with the shrieks and clatters of a bowling alley and yet another machine-filled amusement arcade. A balcony beneath the rotunda has been converted into the "Cafe Kursaal", a place that obviously regards itself as a cut above its neighbours: it has curtains, for a start, and houses a youth in a white dinner jacket who disconsolately tinkles out Beatles tunes on a piano. They only sell bottled beer (and a round of two drinks came to pounds 4.90!) and not only know what espresso macchiato is but serve it.

This is where all the retired folk come for their little bit of civilisation: to eat jacket potatoes and gateau, and stare gloomily over the balcony railings. The walls are lined with sepia photos of Southend in its heyday, a set of fine 18th-century warehouse-style houses and hotels, and its inhabitants, most of whom were probably making a good living as sideshow attractions way back in the 1860s.

This, apparently, is a heritage centre. We drank half our drinks and fled for the grimmer end of the seafront before they could start up the Tuesday tea dance.

Cafe Kursaal, Seafront, Southend-on-Sea (01702 322322)

SOUTHEND BITES

Neptunes Restaurant

Marine Parade, Southend

(01702 464466)

Old dears in pinnies dishing up fish and chips. Note on menu reads "The management reserves the right to settle the bill at any time to prevent possible confusion".

Hope Hotel

Seafront (01702 467413) Gorgeous white building housing a "proper" pub. Boxing on the telly, a man with a fag in his mouth playing Seventies slowies, and a grinning Wendy Richard on the wall.

Pier Pavilion

End of the pier

Shops, bar, amusement arcade and cafe gathered round a huddle of tables. Everything sold at captive-audience prices, but at least the buildings provide shelter from the howling sea wind.

Gilbies Cafe

4 Western Esplanade

Small plastic-covered cafe on the mudflats selling burgers and a good range of extra-sweet desserts.

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