Restautants: The time, the plaice

The service is decidedly retro at Whitstable's Hotel Continental. Happily, so are the prices. Photographs by Morley von Sternberg
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It must be the effect of the oysters. A beach hut in Whitstable, Kent, the coastal town of shingle, clapboard cottages and Edwardian villas, has become a sought-after accessory among the Elle Decoration set. Until the First World War, oysters were bred and exported in their millions here, and a couple of the town's pubs still sell them to a crowd of away- day Londoners. But what has really added to its weather-beaten appeal is the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company, a restaurant in a Victorian warehouse right on the shingle. Oysters are reared underneath; inside it is rickety and whitewashed, the fish and seafood gloriously fresh and simply cooked. For all its rough edges, it is one of my favourite restaurants ever.

In the wake of the restaurant's success, the owners have also developed the complementary aspects of a nostalgic trip to the seaside - perfect fish and chips, an evening at the pictures and lodgings for the night. They have converted six fisherman's huts to stay in, set up the Imperial Oyster Cinema, and restored and opened the vaguely Art Deco Hotel Continental, also with a restaurant that looks more like a Camden gastropub than a seaside dining-room.

I went to the Continental disguised as a local with my mum and dad, who live nearby. A couple of their friends had decided to join them, and the balance of our group tipped towards retirement age. But beyond the smoky bar, where a man crammed armfuls of logs into a wood-burning stove, the stark two-tier, two-tone-painted dining-room was full of all ages and income groups.

Service was more faithfully retro than the surroundings, and the Continental is upholding a great British tradition that has been dying out. The waitress looked like Miss Brahms from Are You Being Served? and could have been schooled in surly by Grace Brothers. But while my mum and I wanted to give her a good slap, my dad, like many respectable members of his generation, seemed to find her disdain appealing.

Better still, prices look dated, too. The three-course Anglo-French, half-seafood, half-meat menu is pounds 12.50 for dinner, pounds 9.50 for lunch, which sounds like an introductory offer, but it isn't.

You could excuse quite a lot for that, but when the food came we didn't have to. Plaice is an underrated fish, a match for most when it's not long out of the sea. Two fillets were fried with a slick of rockpool-green parsley sauce, a classic combination that got the balance absolutely right. Fish soup in a wide, shallow bowl was thick, brick-coloured and tasted just the ticket. No fancy foreign flourishes of rouille or croutons; it came slopped, English-style, half in, half out of the bowl. Moules were as fresh, plump and smooth-skinned as a seaside landlady's daughter. For a pounds 1.50 supplement there are half-a-dozen oysters.

It is heartening to see herring roe and bacon on toast on the menu - economy ingredients in a time-honoured, comforting combination that's now rare, though the portion suggested rationing was still in force, and the cooking was uneven.

Though the fish stole the show, there were no complaints about the chargrilled chicken that came smeared with black-olive tapenade and with roast tomatoes. Calf's liver with Madeira sauce, and lamb with wild mushrooms and Puy lentils were also good. The chips were the business, as you'd expect when the fish is, too. And if creme brulee is another yardstick by which a restaurant can stand or fall, the Continental can hold its head up.

It all goes to show that despite the Continental's modish guise, old- fashioned values are thriving by the seaside, and at pounds 23 a head, our dinner was fantastic value

Hotel Continental, 29 Beach Walk, Whitstable, Kent (01227 280280). Lunch and dinner daily. Lunch pounds 9.50, dinner pounds 12.50. Service not included. All credit cards. Disabled access.

Bites

Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company Royal Native Oyster Stores The Horsebridge, Whitstable, Kent (01227 276856). Tue-Sun lunch and dinner. The restaurant that spawned the Whitstable empire, and now has the Continental to take the overflow, has an exceptional setting, a barely-done-up warehouse on the beach. Service can be erratic, there are two sittings for Sunday lunch and prices have gradually risen - though locally caught mackerel with apple sauce is pounds 8.50 - but nothing can detract from its rough-hewn briney magic.

Wife of Bath 4 Upper Bridge Street, Wye, Kent (01233 812540). Tue-Sat lunch and dinner. An all-rounder of long standing. Elegant but not extortionate, with a set-price dinner for pounds 23.50, a la carte lunch for around pounds 20, or a couple of courses from the Pilgrim's menu for pounds 10, the cooking puts local produce to fine straightforward use. For dinner, there's always fish from the Kent coast and some sort of game. Read's Painter's Forstal, Faversham, Kent (01795 535344). Tue-Sat lunch and dinner. The toast of east Kent, even if it doesn't look much from outside. Chef David Pitchford's skilled and seasonal cooking has been appreciated for 22 years, and the pounds 22 dinner menu currently available from Tuesday to Friday is a generous gesture to regulars. The other dinner menu is pounds 35, lunch pounds 18.50. Local produce stars in dishes lengthily and temptingly described: such as Romney Marsh lamb roasted pink with garlicky potatoes, ratatouille and rosemary-scented juice.

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