I just paid six quid (sick squid!) for a two-course lunch of phenomenally fresh fish – a couple of little dabs to start, a whole plaice to follow, with salad and boiled potatoes on the side. What a way to end my self-imposed three-month Credit Crunch Challenge. Besides, now that the cause has been taken up by the Evening Standard with its new, how-did-they-think-of-
that restaurant column, Credit Crunch Challenge, I can happily move on. Not that I'm about to dive straight back into £75-a-head tasting-menu land, nosirree. That would give me the bends. But first let me put that six-quid meal into context.
For a start, it was in Hastings, which, according to a recent study, is one of the most economically depressed regions in Britain – in other words, what we are all going to be this time next year. Second, it was at a pub, as opposed to a gastropub. The Dolphin Inn is a bog-standard local boozer, with wooden tables and benches outside, quiz night on Thursday and a meat raffle on Sunday. Third, it was rubbish service, rubbish décor and pretty much rubbish everything else except for the fish, which had the absolute, pure, singing clarity of flavour that screamed genuine straight-from-the-fisherman freshness.
And that's the thing. The Dolphin, curious beast that it is, is showing us what could be. A young chef (Simon Constable, in this case) has the nous to take over the kitchen of a local pub, jump on the boats and buy fresh fish every day, talk a few local girls into waiting tables, and send out food from 9am to 9pm for not much more than you would pay at Pret.
Even without the £6 BOGOF lunch offer (buy your £6 main and get your starter free), you can get starters of hot smoked mackerel and moules marinière for £5, treacle-roasted salmon for £6, and a giant battered cod with chips and peas for £9.50. It's all a bit slapped together – and the idea of writing the name of the dish in mayonnaise on the rim of the plate has to go – but it is basic, good, simple, local and fast.
What really got me, apart from a lovely pint of Wells Bombardier, was not the price but the freshness. I haven't had fish this fresh at either Scott's or J Sheekey.
I can't tell you to race off to the Dolphin Inn for a fabulous gastronomic experience, however, because you may not get one. You might get the Thai-style spicy fish soup (£5), which was small, coarsely hot, pink, and oddly thickened with lentils. You might get the gammon ham (£6), which was dry and tasteless – but teamed with truly excellent eggs, tenderly cooked with limpid yolks and glistening whites, and crunchy, deeply sun-tanned chips.
You might not get any cutlery, either, unless you twig that you have to go and get it yourself. You certainly won't get any water, beer or coffee unless you go up to the bar and ask for it. Order a glass of wine and your choice of Chardonnay, medium white, red or rosé is poured from a tiny mini-bar bottle. (There is a basic wine list apparently, but I didn't see it.) As for décor, there is no escaping the giant flat-screen television in the main bar, because there is one in the other bar as well.
You might argue that fish is cheap in Hastings, and it is – I bought six plaice for £5.50 across the road to take home – but that is very much the point.
Taking what is staring us in the face and making something of it, using local resources, produce and people, looks like the best way to ride out the credit crunch. Local pubs, particularly, have it hard these days, but they also have a real opportunity to reinvent themselves, by giving young chefs a home and some people to practise on. Who knows, we could all come out of this recession better off, with more flexible, local places to eat. Either that, or it's going to be egg and chips all the way; something the Dolphin, providentially, already does very well.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
The Dolphin Inn, 12 Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings, East Sussex, tel: 01424 431 197. Food served daily from 9am-9pm. Around £25 for two, with drinks
Second helpings: More piscatorial pubs
Innes Street, Plockton, Ross-shire, tel: 01599 544 222
A hundred metres from Plockton harbour, this friendly village inn does a roaring trade in locally caught seafood, much of which is smoked in its own smokehouse
The Old School House, Stane Street, Ockley, Surrey, tel: 01306 627 430
Bill Bryce opened this destination pub and fish restaurant some 16 years ago. Powered by crowd-pleasers such as red mullet on crab risotto, it's still going strong
Kealy's Seafood Bar
The Harbour, Greencastle, County Donegal, tel: 00 353 (0)74 938 1010
Across the road from the pier, James Kealy's popular pub-restaurant serves up fresh fish straight off the boats. The seafood chowder alone is worth a detour
Read Terry Durack's new column at independent.co.uk/eat