Somewhere between a rollercoaster and a Michelin star sits the real Margate
An exercise in contrasts, Margate is a town with a thriving food scene that has somehow still held onto its roots. This week, Molly eats her way around it and digs out the best places to visit
As Nora Ephron famously said, “Everything is copy.” I have, as a food journalist, mentally rephrased it to “Every calorie is copy.” This means a girls’ trip to Margate isn’t simply a weekend away, but fodder for my column the following week. Because, really, what is the point in racking up enough carbohydrates to satiate a small rugby team if not to exploit them for readers?
I hop on the Kent Express with a sense of trepidation every time I go to Margate. While as a town it has seen an explosion of interesting places to eat and drink in recent years, I still approach Margate without anything resembling rose-tinted glasses. I’m not the biggest fan of the stench that permeates most nooks and crannies of this illustrious seaside town, and I fail to find the appeal of a beach so mottled with people it looks like a caricature of a Martin Parr photograph.
In a recent review of Sargasso, Jay Rayner says that discussing the gentrification of Margate is so obvious a point as to be “barely worth making”. But when it’s so intrinsically folded into the DNA of this place I find it hard to overlook. As someone who has only called this country home for four years, the glaring contrast of Margate as a place is, in my opinion, directly representative of present-day England. It’s the old guard grappling with the new generation; brutalist Dreamland alongside renovated terraced houses. Old-school chippies tout soggy saveloys next door to restaurants where you’d struggle to get in and out for less than £60 a head. And at the centre of it all is the idea of the revival of a beach town, and the question of whether this uptick in restaurant businesses is a good thing or not.
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That is not a question for me to answer, but what’s certain is that Margate’s reputation as a burgeoning culinary destination of sorts has made it target number one for hungry Londoners looking for a change of pace. Never mind the fact that I bumped into four separate people I knew while I was there, or that one of my favourite meals came from a restaurateur known for his much-loved East London restaurant – it’s arguably one of the most exciting places to eat outside of the capital right now, so off we went.
So desperate for a break from London were we that the first place we went to was Sargasso, a place free from the shackles of the trends and requirements of London food, the kind of place that you definitely couldn’t find tucked away in the back streets of Shoreditch. All joking aside, though, Sargasso consistently pumps out incredible meals. Even as the menu shifts with the seasons, the food remains interesting, reliable and – most importantly – delicious. The only dish that fell short a little bit was the black pudding, which had a sort of wet, pulled meat texture to it rather than the crumbly, almost biscuity feel that makes it so moreish. We guessed that they may have attempted to make their own in-house, and my dining companion put it well when she said “charcuterie and black pudding, the two things you should leave to the butcher”.
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This, however, was thoroughly overlooked thanks to the incredible, golden nuggets of umami joy that are the parmesan puffs, or the unctuous, perfectly seasoned, bright and lively caponata. Not forgetting the crab salad, the creamy cod’s roe or the pile of ruby-red tomatoes sitting in a pool of salty, fishy, incredibly delicious anchoïade. It was all so good that, even as the clouds rolled in and the rain began to fall, we committed to sitting outside in the drizzle to scrape up every last mouthful of it all (with some extra bread to mop up that anchoïade, thanks).
Both times I’ve been to Dive, the menu has produced some of the best Mexican food I’ve had in the UK
Elsewhere on the harbour arm is Dive, a thoroughly underrated slip of a restaurant that is just as good for loading up on tacos and quesadillas as it is for knocking back countless margaritas, all while watching Margate town turn a kind of otherworldly gold as the sun slips beyond the horizon. The food at Dive is amazing. Both times I’ve been, the short, concise menu has produced some of the best Mexican food I’ve had in the UK.
On the ‘strip’ you’ve got Dory’s, the younger, more informal, walk-in only sibling of the very popular Angela’s (which I’ve still never eaten at). This is the kind of place you’d come, sit outside, order multiple bottles of white wine, too many oysters and one of every plate on the menu. It has a slightly more sparse feel to the food, with a larger focus on the ingredients rather than doing too much to them. They also serve the oysters with a house-made chilli sauce that was so good I considered running off with the bottle.
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While waiting for a table at Dory’s, you can load up on frozen margaritas at Little Swift, or grab a bottle of wine to take away from the shop out the back and park up on the harbour stairs. It’s likely you’ll end any night in Margate thoroughly lubricated, and if you need to soak up some of the booze, the recently opened Palms Pizzeria serves up piping hot slices with thoughtful topping combos, alongside pickleback shots should you want to continue the night. The inevitable sore head the next day is best soothed with a plate of food and a strong coffee from Forts. Everything on the menu is pretty great, but the ‘nduja fried eggs and bacon and chipotle mayo focaccia sandwich (which had a whiff of Dusty Knuckle about it) were some of the best breakfasts I’ve had in recent memory.
No trip to Margate is complete without a visit to Bottega Caruso – alongside Angela’s, I believe, part of the first wave of restaurants worth their salt opening in Margate, and a catalyst to what has now become a surge. To dine here is to eat well. It’s like being parked up in someone’s living room (helped by the fact that a majority of the ingredients – passata sauce and olive oil included – come from co-owner Simona Di Dio’s family’s village in Italy).
So, yes, Margate is an exercise in parallels. Contrary to popular beach-town belief, I think the perfect time of year to visit is early Autumn, when the air is starting to turn, the days are crisp and the beach empty. And the tide of openings shows no sign of ebbing – Fort Road Hotel and accompanying restaurant are set to be a hot addition to the area when it opens its doors later in the summer – and so I doubt the influx of Londoners will either. I just hope it doesn’t give into gentrification completely. The day the restaurants on the harbour arm get private, regularly cleaned toilets, is the day you know Margate has gone too far.