This brick-and-clapboard structure was once the Royal Native Oyster Stores, headquarters of the town's lucrative business in bivalves - some 19 million were produced from local beds in 1912 - but disease and pollution did for the native oyster (Ostea edulis) in the Thirties. It was re-opened as a no-nonsense fish restaurant by a pair of sibling entrepreneurs seven years ago - you can't say it was "converted" because next to nothing has been done to the building, unless you count the creation of a cinema with pounds l0,000 Dolby system upstairs. (Queen Victoria's coat of arms above the cinema door suggests Her Late Majesty was a regular in the stalls.) Curlicues of wallpaper unpeel between the ceiling rafters of the restaurant. A two-foot corkscrew and various nasty-looking hooks are among the strange appurtenances of the oyster trade which still hang on the white-washed walls. Comfort is not a major priority. However, there is often a ravishing sunset (unexpected in an east-coast town) over the Isle of Sheppey across the estuary.
Just over an hour from London, the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Co is the kind of beach-side eatery you dream of but seldom find on Britain's gastronomically undistinguished coastline. Weekends are best avoided. On a Friday night in the summer, both the big dining rooms were heaving. One was dominated by a raucous crowd who bellowed Italian ditties between courses. We were pleased to find ourselves placed in the other room when this tuneful crew launched into "O Sole Mio". Our cosy feelings of Schadenfreude ebbed away when we discovered an adjoining table was occupied by a foghorn-voiced chancer entertaining a party of prospects from the former Soviet bloc. His technique for overcoming the language barrier was to repeat everything at least once. "Nigeria, forget it! Nigeria, forget it!" he blared. "Nigeria, no, no, no, no." I was pleased to see his mouth gape when one of his Russian guests ordered a whole lobster salad at pounds 22.50. "A whole one? You sure of that, Alexei? Fine, fine, if that's what you want."
Though Whitstable is once again breeding oysters (the disease-resistant Crassostrea gigas), for some unfathomable reason the restaurant imports them from Colchester and Loch Fyne. These inexplicably well-travelled shellfish are served on the half-shell in trays packed with crushed ice (pounds 6.50 for half a dozen. It seems absurd not to have the fine local product (the takeaway price from Wheeler's Shellfish Bar in Whitstable High Street is pounds 3.70 per dozen). Instead, I chose a starter of moules mariniere (pounds 5). An impressively hefty bowl arrived, filled to the brim with the sweetest, plumpest mussels I've ever eaten. My companion settled for a brace of chargrilled sardines with a simple, unbeatable accompaniment of chopped fresh tomatoes and basil (pounds 4). We followed with deep-fried cod in beer batter (pounds 9.50) and a flawlessly grilled lemon sole (pounds 12.50). Everything was perfectly OK - but my mind wasn't really on the job, being buffeted on one side by a spirited version of "Volare" and, on the other, by the exasperatingly duplicated trumpeting of Kent's answer to Donald Trump. We made our escape, but not fast enough to miss a final apercu from our neighbour, who was waving a physalis extracted from his pudding. "In England, gooseberries are green," he hectored. "In South Africa, they are yellow."
It is a tribute to the restaurant's stunning setting and admirably unfussy fish cooking, that we returned some weeks later on a Tuesday evening. The atmosphere was gratifyingly tranquil, aside from occasional rumblings from Men in Black, steadily spooling for a handful of viewers upstairs. Unlike on our previous visit, the service was prompt and accurate. On the minus side, they had sold out of mussels. Stifling my sobs, I went for a starter of home-smoked eel salad (pounds 7.50). Considering that eel is now a luxury item, this turned out to be good value, with four substantial, meaty chunks on a bed of leaves, their dense oiliness offset by a slightly vinegary dressing. My companion chose baby plaice (pounds 4), which arrived deep-fried, its tail flapping the air like that of a beached whale, and flanked by a splat of light aioli. The sweet flakes of the flatfish married marvellously with the nutty crispiness of the fried skin.
For her main course, she plumped for char-grilled salmon (pounds l2.50). This consisted of two more-than-generous salmon steaks, which were juicy and delicious within their smoky carapaces. My poached halibut in hollandaise was wonderfully delicate, but pounds l5 seemed steepish for a smallish piece of tail, no matter how heavenly the fish. (Portion control at the Oyster Fishery Co is a touch erratic.) A bowl of superb chips - double-fried and on no account to be missed - with a salad of beef tomatoes topped by shredded basil helped to bulk things out.
I finished with a top-notch creme brulee (pounds 4.50) which had a couple of raspberries lurking below the surface. My companion chose a honeycomb ice-cream (pounds 4.50) made by Criterion Ices of Sydenham. I asked for a sample and it was simply the most irresistibly sinful ice-cream of my life. Its legality is inexplicable. In what I regard as an incomparable display of iron-willed self-discipline, I left a small amount for my companion. With a fairly priced Pouilly Fume (pounds l6.50) imported by Yapp Brothers, the bill came to pounds 69.40, excluding service
Whitstable Oyster Fishery Co, Horsebridge, Whitstable, Kent (01227 276856). Open Sunday 12pm-3.30pm, Tuesday-Friday 12pm-2pm, 7pm-9pm, Saturday 12pm- 2.30pm, 6.30pm-10pm.
Heroes of the half-shell
Oyster Bar, Grand Central Station, New York (001 212 490 6650). This unparalleled bivalve basilica in the bowels of the great beaux-arts terminus should be mandatory for all visitors to the Big Apple. Under white-tiled vaults (adjoining wood-panelled tavern room is quieter but less atmospheric), you can choose from up to nine varieties of euphonious stateside oysters ranging from sweet Chincoteagues from North Carolina to slightly metallic Westcott Bay Petites from Washington State, though local Bluepoints (a generic name for Atlantic oysters) are as good as any for around $24 per dozen. All the flesh is in perfect nick. The oyster stew is dismayingly lactic, a creamy lake lapping round a trio of plump huitres. Better to go for the sublime, pan-roasted shellfish.
Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, Clachan Farm, Cairndow, Argyll and the islands (01499 600236). A sort of brewery tap for the hugely successful oyster farm which led to the revival of interest in the home-grown article. The single-storey loch-side structure, seating 80, is a magnet for the oyster aficionado. A dozen Loch Fyne Gigas oysters costs a modest pounds 8.90. You can follow with half a dozen baked with spinach and Mornay sauce or garlic and bread crumbs for pounds 6.95. There should be something similar on each streetcorner, but only by the lucky folk of Nottingham (01159 508481) and Elton, near Peterborough (01832 280298) enjoy the benefaction of a local branch.
Bibendum Oyster Bar, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3 (0171-581 5817 - no booking). Conran's wildly popular oyster parlour at the heart of Brompton Cross. Open from noon to 10.30pm, so there's no desperate need to join the lunch- time queue. The oysters are tiptop, but do not come cheap. A dozen natives (No 3s) from Strangford Lough near Belfast will set you back pounds 29 per doz, though plats from the Belon estuary are a quid cheaper. Scottish rock oysters are pounds 15 per doz and fines de claire (the emerald-hued jobs from Brittany) are pounds 16 per doz. The clams merit a slurp at pounds 10.50 per doz. All prices exclude Conran's over-generous 15 per cent tip.
The Butley-Orford Oysterage, Market Hill Orford, Suffolk (01394 450277). Puritanically furnished rural haunt which every customer insists that he (or she) personally discovered. The enormous Gigas oysters (10.80 per doz) come from the restaurant's own beds. You can sample them along with a variety of home-smoked fish in the hors d'oeuvres (pounds 7.50) which arrives on a metal armature resembling a medieval torture implement. Don't be tempted by any of the hot dishes, which are accompanied by inexplicably floury sauces. The take-away oysters are also best avoided, they tend to be muddy and are so big that you'll break your oyster knife.