‘The Oyster Stores’ success seems little to do with quality of cooking or warmth of welcome’
I had planned to write an altogether different review this week, about a new arrival in a cathedral town, sending out all the right local-produce-cool-font-small-plates signals. But signposts can be misleading and our meal was dreary: disengaged service, tiny portions served on a selection of increasingly irritating wooden boards. They were talking the talk, but the walk was more of a half-hearted stagger. Still, savaging this kind of outfit leaves a horrible taste in my mouth; let them die a natural death or buck up their act untroubled by the ministrations of newspapers.
So I decide instead to check out a place I last stomped out of in a rage, bellowing, “I’m never going back”, to see if it had improved any in the intervening years. Because, despite a constant stream of disgruntled reports, the Royal Native Oyster Stores are still as busy as they ever were.
It’s not an overstatement to suggest this place kickstarted Whitstable’s revival, clearing the way for any number of businesses punting shellfish to Down From Londoners, or purveying items that look darling in the harbourside shop but transform into unspeakable toot by the time you get them home.
Alas for my chilly revenge, we have a lovely lunch. Bathed in the last watery beams of primrose sunshine before winter hits, looking out on to the pebbly Whitstable beach from this beautiful historic building, it’s easy to overlook flaws. The native oysters (which, to be fair, owners the Green family are largely responsible for rehabilitating) are as bracing and briny as a french kiss from a matelot, and come served with a little mignonette and bottle of Tabasco that looks like it’s seen many a service. Potted crab is rich and buttery, the mostly brown meat fragrant with nutmeg.
Staff, apart from a clued-up older gal, appear to have taken a wrong turn on the way to snakebites at the student union, and are a bit tetchy as a result. But there’s a fine bit of hake to compensate, flaking into snowy forkfuls, with a serviceable romesco and what can only be described as garnish of boiled potatoes. Mackerel, its smoky grilling a suitable treatment for butch, oily flesh perhaps a shade older than is desirable, is tamed by a pool of apple sauce. Kentish Chapel Down Flinty Dry is pleasingly gluggable. There are matronly puddings, treacle tarts and crumbles all nicely topped with a leaf-on physalis for that sophisticated 1980s touch.
But here’s the rub. The Oyster Stores are taking the absolute piss; have been for decades. Lunch for two stings us for 127 quid. A small tangle of deep-fried squid with mayo costs £10.50. They’re – correctly, it seems – taking us for suckers happy to hand over unconscionable wads of cash in order to fill deprived city lungs with sea air (because, believe me, there’s not a native Whitstable-ian in the place, apart from those oysters). This for a joint where fish virtually leaps out of the water on to cheap plates, to be eaten with cheap cutlery while you drink out of cheap wine glasses. The “handwritten” menu pretends to be of the moment, but seems unchanged since I was last here. And it’s an inflexible article: God forbid you might want chips instead of spuds with your mackerel, unless you’re happy to fork out an extra £3.50 for the privilege.
The Oyster Stores’ success seems little to do with quality of cooking or warmth of welcome. For my (lots of) money, it’s down to beauty: the unbeatable location; the allure of the insouciant, rickety rooms – what started off as cheap expediency back in the day is now the very quintessence of maritime shabby chic. Then there are the Technicolor Whitstable sunsets, the pristine Kent coast seafood. And, of course, they rely almost entirely on transient trade. As far as I’m concerned, they can ram their big fish, small pool arrogance right up their scallops. This time I mean it: lovely lunch or not, I’m never going back.
• Royal Native Oyster Stores Horsebridge, Whitstable, Kent, 01227 276856. Open Mon-Thur lunch only, noon-2.30pm; Fri lunch noon-2.30pm, dinner, 6.30-9.30pm; Sat noon-9.45pm; Sun noon-8.30pm. About £40 a head for three courses, plus drink and service.
Value for money 3/10