We Visit

Where to eat in Margate

From the mod and rocker rivalries of the 60s to the mysteries of the curious Shell Grotto, this seaside town's history is as rich and chequered as its patchwork of vintage shops, gelaterias, restaurants and cafes

Margate is brimming with juxtapositions: trad seaside shops nestle next to energetic start-ups, while brutalist architecture gives way to Georgian squares, Mr Whippy to gelato and penny arcades to the reinvigorated Dreamland funfair. There’s something for everyone – and on bank holiday weekends, you might feel like everyone is here.

Take a stroll down the High Street for the nostalgia of seeing an old Woolworths yet to be regenerated, but press on to the cobbled Old Town for delights beyond mere sentiment. Here, among the Georgian buildings and pretty open spaces, traditional confectioners keep sweet company with a hotchpotch of vintage shops and eclectic eateries, many with a distinctly retro-contemporary vibe.

Margate has been gaining a reputation among foodies as a nerve centre for brilliant start-up restaurants and retailers. With lower costs than in the city, bright young entrepreneurs are changing the face of one of the UK’s most historic seaside towns. It’s a world away from the mod and rocker beach battles of the 60s.

The handsome-but-homely Kentish Pantry in the Old Town marketplace offers a menu of stunningly fresh produce from the Garden of England. A rustic salad of local asparagus, Kentish Ashmore cheese and home-cured pancetta might be enjoyed while eyeing stacks of house pickles and sauces. And they’re not the only ones taking homemade to another level. Over at Broad Street’s Bottega Caruso, chef Simona Di Dio and husband Harry Ryder sell bottles of their own tomato sugo from their simple, southern Italian kitchen/deli (formerly a 19th century pub) alongside a menu of Campanian family favourites. The salt cod, pickled peppers and cauliflower is a joyful jumble of texture and racy flavours, while a fat dollop of greens and beans is Simona’s grandmother’s recipe. Slow-cooked and ripe with garlic, this peasant dish is one of the most popular that the couple serves. Grab the table by the cosily domestic kitchen where you’ll see pasta made by hand, and wonder at how this modest set-up can send out such
spectacular dishes.

Late afternoons in Margate are made for a rummage in the town’s brilliant vintage shops. From toy soldiers and Thatcher memorabilia to 50s mannequins and waltzer carriages, Margate has everything you didn’t realise you needed. Enter Scott’s Furniture Mart and neighbouring Junk Deluxe at your peril: odds are you’ll emerge hours later clutching a host of granny-chic bargains.

On now to the east of the town in Cliftonville, where Cliffs Coffee and Record Shop is surely Margate’s coolest hangout. Sip a flat white and flick through the vinyl, catch a £5 yoga class or get your hair done. It’s all here and all, improbably, under one roof. Half-way back to the Old Town is the mysterious Shell Grotto, an eerie subterranean passage covered in an intricate shell mosaic. Theories abound as to its origins: is it an ancient pagan grotto or Regency folly? Nobody knows, but for its sheer oddness and beauty, it earns a visit.

Back above ground, gorgeous hot cross buns can be had year round at Gina’s Old Kent Bakery in the Edwardian Old Kent Market. Set among a cluster of stalls, the bakery serves up cherry or chocolate buns and golden baked savouries. You might glimpse Gina herself, vigorously rolling dough in her open-to-view kitchen.

Coffee connoisseurs should seek out Storeroom, perched on the edge of the Old Town in the regenerated Printworks. This breezy, whitewashed café serves speciality coffees from its own local roastery, Curve. With friendly service, sweetly decorated cakes, breakfasts of Turkish eggs and a sun-trap of a terrace, storeroom is a gem.

The tiny fish restaurant Angela’s, a pebble’s throw from the seafront, is gaining a national reputation for its quality seafood, sourced straight from Hasting’s sea boats. Its impeccable menu might include red mullet in crab bisque, or plump scallops in a rich, sunshine-yellow butter sauce.

On the front, Antony Gormley’s ‘man’ sculpture stands on chalk beds before the Turner Contemporary gallery, becoming visible three hours before low tide. And if that’s not reason enough to explore Margate’s coast and its famous art space, the Harbour Arm’s Cheesy Tiger restaurant is a minute away; it offers some innovative takes on the humble toastie and near-legendary mac ’n’ cheese, along with beer and a sea view.

With so much on offer one thing’s for sure: a seaside town it might be, but Margate’s not just for high days and holidays.

Heading west instead? Read our guide to Porthleven.

Originally published in Waitrose Weekend, pick up a copy in store, free, every Thursday.