A culinary guide to the Isle of Thanet, Kent

At the northeastern edge of the county, the Isle of Thanet — home to Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs — is attracting a wave of creative chefs, whose fresh ideas have transformed the peninsula into one of the UK’s most dynamic dining destinations.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

It’s just turned midday and, with the sun winning its battle against a lingering sea mist, day-trippers start to stream from Margate station, past the Dreamland amusement park and towards the beach. I sidestep the crowds and bag a table at Dory’s — a sophisticated spot with sea views and a just-updated chalkboard of seafood dishes. While weighing up the wine list, I watch as staff hurry past delivering plates of Whitstable oysters to neighbouring tables.

It’s not the obvious image of a county known as ‘the Garden of England’. For anyone who’s passed Kent’s orchards, vineyards and farmland to reach Margate, the county’s rural reputation is obvious, but the Isle of Thanet has an identity all its own. Once separated from the mainland by a now silted-up channel, this peninsula on the county’s north-eastern tip is defined by its cluster of Georgian seaside resorts — Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate — which, until recently, had seen better days. Previously a fashionable destination for Londoners seeking a salty-aired retreat, the European package holiday boom of the 1960s signalled a change in fortunes. But, following decades of decline, a recent influx of optimism and fresh ideas means Thanet is starting to thrive again. 

Margate’s revival was jump-started in 2011 by the arrival of the Turner Contemporary art gallery, swiftly followed by a growing roster of hip new studios, cafes, shops and restaurants. Often, these new businesses were launched by enterprising newcomers, lured by the prospect of a fresh start by the sea — a life decision that seems increasingly convincing as I sit in the sun, dipping smoked prawns into aioli. After a leisurely lunch, I’m joined by art director-turned-restaurateur Lee Coad, who opened seafood hotspot Angela’s in Margate’s newly restored Old Town in 2017, with Dory’s — it’s no-reservation sister restaurant — following two years later. 

“You could see that Margate was this untouched gem, and launching a seafood restaurant located by the sea made sense to me,” he says, recalling his decision to move to Thanet. “Whatever arrives from the day boats that morning — skate, turbot, bass, mackerel — is on your plate at lunchtime.”

Both Angela’s and Dory’s work in tandem to share ingredients and minimise waste, with the former featuring fresh fish cooked over charcoal, and the latter placing an emphasis on raw, pickled or cured dishes. “We source well and try not to use any plastic. I think that’s part of the reason why we’re popular,” says Lee. It’s worked — earlier this year, Angela’s picked up one of the Michelin Guide’s inaugural ‘Green Stars’. 

Aiming to create a neighbourhood restaurant with a lasting legacy, Lee remains inspired by Margate’s evolution. “There’s a wonderful spirit of creativity here,” he says, gesturing at his chefs as they blowtorch mackerel fillets in the open kitchen. “Whether it’s the photographers, the artists, the restaurants or the community groups, there’s a desire to do something good in the area. And I’d much rather be doing this by the sea, which gives you a wonderful backdrop.”

It’s a vista that also inspired Bulgarian chef Alexander Taralezhkov to switch London for Margate, as he explains on a walk along the coast. He’s just opened Dolma Bar at Cliftonville’s Tom Thumb Theatre, where his Ottoman-inspired concept of dolma (stuffed) and sarma (wrapped) dishes allows him to experiment with local produce. 

“The English language is very good at creating concepts like ‘cold-water swimming’ or ‘foraging’,” he says, as we watch swimmers at Walpole Bay. “But in Eastern Europe, we just swim or pick things.” With the tide at its lowest, he points out the seaweed species he often puts to good use in his cooking. There’s bladderwrack, thrown over fire to impart the flavour of the sea onto grilled food, and sea lettuce and kelp, used to make umami-rich stocks. “I also pick a lot of sea purslane for pesto,” he adds, pointing to the shoreline shrub that lines the coastal path, “and there’s wild peppery rocket here, too.”

Having made the jump from high-flying hospitality jobs, his latest venture benefits from Thanet’s long growing season, which allows his allotment-grown vegetables to shine. “Dolmas are often a celebratory dish as they’re time consuming to make — I liken them to Balkan dim sum,” he says of these intricately assembled parcels. “Whether that’s Mangalitsa pork wrapped with cabbage, or stuffed artichoke or smoked mussels, there’s a real artistry to these dishes."

Not that the concept will be too alien to the locals, with Cliftonville’s significant Balkan population likely to ensure Alexander’s craft connects with more than just the DFL (down from London) crowd. 

I follow the Viking Coastal Trail eastwards, past fields of brassicas and the dramatic chalk outcrops at Botany Bay, to the town of Broadstairs. My first port of call is Morelli’s, a perfectly preserved 1950s throwback, complete with soda fountain and pink leatherette booths, for a silky-smooth scoop of pistachio gelato. The Morelli family arrived in the UK from southern Italy at the turn of the 20th century before settling in Broadstairs in the 1930s. Even as the area’s fortunes have changed, this storied parlour remains one of the town’s most iconic spots.

More recently, however, Broadstairs has seen a growing amount of restaurant hype, yet not all of the chefs fronting up new ventures are newcomers. Ramsgate native Ben Crittenden opened Stark with his wife Sophie in 2016 and says the area is changing fast. “There are a lot of people moving down from London to start businesses here, which is great,” he says while prepping for evening service. “Broadstairs was always seen as the nicest town of the three, while Margate has definitely become the trendy one. Ramsgate’s a bit further behind but if someone was willing to take a chance on launching something new, I think people would go there, too.”

To set Stark apart from other restaurants in the area, Crittenden decided to offer a six-course tasting menu. “We wanted to do something that no one else was doing and knew that a set menu would be unique,” he explains. “I simplified my approach, with the aim of maximising flavours and making them stand up against each other.” It’s an approach that clearly paid off, with Stark being awarded a Michelin star in 2018 — a first for Thanet — and the couple moving to a slightly larger, 16-cover spot on the same street, with frosted windows and quirky, ski-lodge decor. 

Later that night, he’s hard at work behind the stoves, sending out immaculately presented dishes against a buzzy, indie-rock soundtrack: squid and asparagus in a smoky bisque; halibut dressed with fronds of wild fennel; and a wonderfully balanced salt-sweet goat’s curd dessert. While far-removed from the image some might have of a Michelin-starred venue, it’s a compelling formula underpinned by excellent food. “Winning the star made us surer than ever of who we are,” says Ben. “Stark probably isn’t for everyone but we do it how we like it — and that’s important for us to keep the passion alive.”  

Five things to try in Kent 

1. Beer

 Margate-based Northdown Brewery’s cans have won over the CAMRA brigade and craft market alike. The hazy Tidal Pool pale ale and crisp Northdown lager are particularly worth tracking down. 

2. Coffee 

The single-origin coffees at Curve Coffee are brewed at many local restaurants as well as at Curve’s own Storeroom cafe in Margate. Standouts include the citrusy Gitesi from Rwanda and the chocolatey Colombian Montebonito. 

3. Asparagus

Sea breezes and a sunny climate provide perfect conditions to grow these hefty, hand-picked spears from Sevenscore Farm just south of Ramsgate. See them on menus across Kent between April and June. 

4. Shellfish

Thanet’s commercial fishing industry may have dwindled but its seafood huts remain, with both Cannon’s in Ramsgate and Manning’s in Margate your port of call for crevettes and cockles.

5. Gelato

With all its seaside resorts, ice cream in Thanet is a strong suit; the expansive offerings at Morelli’s in Broadstairs and Melt Gelato in Margate more than justify the queues. 

Three of the best restaurants

1. Flotsam & Jetsam
A hugely successful idea during the pandemic saw the founders of Broadstairs institution Wyatt & Jones launch this charismatic ‘seafood and frites’ takeaway just seconds from Viking Bay. Pairing chips made with local potatoes with elevated fish dishes, the new set up became an instant hit. Expect fritto misto cones, half lobsters, and monkfish scampi in squid-ink batter — as well as upwards of 15 dips, including seaweed mayo. Now a permanent fixture on Harbour Street, its beautiful take on a seaside staple is worth defending to the last from the bullish local seagulls. Mains from £6. wyattandjones.co.uk

2. Staple Stores
Thanet boasts an impressive tally of first-rate sourdough bakers. Among them is chef Steve Gadd, who opened Staple Stores cafe and bakery last year on the pretty, flint-fronted Reading Street in St Peter’s. Just a 20-minute walk from Broadstairs town centre, it has swiftly become a weekly pilgrimage for many thanks to its great coffee, cakes, pastries and loaves, made from organic, heritage-grain flours. Gadd recently opened a second site in the nearby town of Westgate-on-Sea. Pastries from £1.80, sandwiches from £5.50. staplestores.co.uk

3. Bottega Caruso
Starting life as a deli at Margate’s Old Kent Market, Harry Ryder and Simona Di Dio’s love letter to regional Italian cuisine moved into this corner of the Old Town in 2018. With its walls lined with jars of homemade sauce, bottles of Primitivo and bags of dried pasta, Bottega Caruso specialises in dishes inspired from Simona’s native Campania. Alongside plates of imported meats and cheeses and freshly made pasta, its menu specialises in cibo povero, or ‘food of the poor’, with the restorative verdura e fagioli stew and rustic, herby polpette di pane just two reasons why it’s become one of Margate’s most prized reservations. Mains from £10. bottegacaruso.com

How to do it

Thanet is easily accessible with Southeastern’s frequent high-speed services from London St Pancras to Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate, with slower trains departing from London Victoria. For more information, see visitthanet.co.uk.

Published in the September issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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