The Watergate Bay Hotel, just east of Newquay in Cornwall, was originally designed as a railway hotel but the tracks never arrived along this stretch of coast and it later became a popular seaside hotel.
Owned by two generations of the Ashworth family since the 1960s, it has gradually been transformed since then (most dramatically over the last decade or so), with a modern Ocean Wing, several distinct eating spaces, a stunning 25m swimming pool, a run of self-catering apartments and a dedicated Kids’ Zone (play rooms, an outdoor play area and a games room for older children) adding to the Beach Hut café and Extreme Academy (watersports hire and tuition company) down on the brilliantly wild two-mile long beach.
The result the family wanted was a coastal (Cornish) answer to a ski resort and they’ve succeeded with a family-friendly feel, a lively après-surf scene and a forgiving attitude to wetsuits worn in the lobby or sandy footprints leaving a salty trail through the restaurants. It’s dog-friendly, too.
Unlike some ski resorts, however, there’s 90% occupancy year-round here, in part thanks to off-season promotions. One of the most popular of those is the Taste of the Bay package: stay for three nights over autumn, winter or spring (excluding school holidays and other peak periods) and the price of the package includes dinner in Zacry’s one night, Fifteen another night and lunch at The Beach Hut (see below for more about those), plus breakfast each morning.
Restaurants at Watergate Bay include the Living Space, a lounge bar with lovely views and a casual all-day menu (burgers, salads, sharing plates, fish and chips), and The Beach Hut, on the shore, which serves equally casual food but with a slightly more adventurous menu (think vanilla French toast with pumpkin and muscovado butter, or fried fish burrito with Mexican rice, spicy mayo and pico de gallo) and holds one-off events such as curry nights and beach barbecues.
Then there’s Zacry’s, the former hotel dining room. Now overhauled by Household, the design team behind several Soho House Group projects, this is a stylish, brasserie-style restaurant. Zacry’s is a multi-tasking space, with breakfast (make-your-own waffles among it) and children’s teas also served here.
In the evening, check your children into a supervised Kids Zone session and relax over plates of deliciously rich local venison with creamed white beans, cavolo nero and salsa verde or grilled plaice with cockles, samphire, parsley, lemon and brown butter; under the direction of executive chef Neil Haydock there’s plenty of Cornish produce coming out of the restaurant’s open kitchen but also a nod to contemporary American cooking (don’t expect burgers but do expect plenty of grilled meat and seafood, some of it barbecued on an indoor charcoal oven).
In the summer months there’s also an independently owned café on the beach, Venus Café. For real destination dining all year round, however, the main event is Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s social enterprise. Across a car park from the hotel, this gives 20 apprentices a year the chance to train as chefs – and diners the chance to linger over exquisite cooking.
Indeed, despite its high London pricing, Fifteen has been so successful that it will celebrate its 10th anniversary next May. Set above the Beach Hut, its Italian-influenced menu comes either a la carte or as a tasting menu. Go in June for the best views on long, light nights, when the windows open onto wide-angle views of the beach and, if you’re lucky, you can spot dolphins offshore while you tuck into plates of Padstow padron pepper, shellfish taglierini with pangrattato or pork chop with lentils, kale and salsa verde. If it’s on the menu don’t miss the brill with Jerusalem artichokes, greens, chilli and mint.
While the hotel is geared towards families, the Ocean Room, a café/ bar/ lounge space tucked away beyond the hotel’s spectacular pool (panoramic windows and an infinity design makes it feel like you’re swimming in the sea, only without the waves), is a gorgeous place to retreat to. Especially after 7pm when it’s adults-only and you can curl up with a glass of rioja by the fire, or by one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that give a gull’s-eye view straight onto the surf.
One word of warning: though the hotel’s wine lists include some knockout bottles the pricing can be equally stunning, especially if you’re after a glass rather than a bottle (though there are a few at the £5 mark most range between £6 to £9 for 125ml).
The hotel’s 69 bedrooms are split between the original Victorian hotel (of which there’s little immediate sign as you enter the hotel though a modern extension), a sea-facing Ocean Wing (all rooms come with their own balconies or terraces: these are, arguably, the best rooms to book if you’re travelling without kids) and the Coach House (the larger family suites are here, with useful access to ‘parents’ kitchens’ but no sea views and smart but less stylish décor than in the other areas; in January they’re being upgraded to match the rest of the hotel, with classy mustard throws, bleached timber boards and painted Scandi-looking wooden armchairs).
Everywhere you turn there are gorgeous handwashes, handcreams and other smellies tailor-made for the hotel: geranium and lemongrass, grapefruit and lime, sage and palmarosa.
Food may be the big selling point for some guests, on-the-doorstep surfing and walking for others, but the hotel’s biggest draw is its family-friendliness. We met very few first-timers on our visit; most were regulars who’d come once and been so impressed by the kids’ facilities, seasonal activity programme, children’s suppers, clever baby-monitoring system and fantastic children’s supervisors and babysitters that they’ve been returning annually ever since.
Taste of the Bay breaks start from £267 per adult, including bed, breakfast and dinner, but keep an eye on the website for some great last-minute b&b offers, too (watergatebay.co.uk).
meet the chef: neil haydock, executive chef of Watergate Bay
While raised in rural Lancashire, the grandson of a country man (who lived off the land, foraging, shooting, trapping and bartering), Neil has lived and worked all over the world. His experience ranges from senior roles at Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados to a stint at Terence Conran’s Bluebird in London and, most recently, executive chef at Fifteen Cornwall. Since 2010, he has been running Watergate Bay Hotel’s restaurants – Zacry’s, The Living Space and The Beach Hut – creating diverse, contemporary menus that showcase the best of Cornwall’s produce while taking inspiration from around the world.
Neil has a passion for American cuisine – not your burger and fries but real food, prepared honestly – and the food and atmosphere at Zacry’s takes inspiration from Neil’s recent culinary tour of US restaurants (including Yardbird in Miami, Mustards Grill in Napa and Husk Charleston in South Carolina). Zacry’s kitchen blends techniques (including cooking on an indoor charcoal oven) and ingredients he witnessed on the tour with local Cornish produce. The result is dishes such as Fiorentina steak, Cornish spider crab and Grampound duck.
The best thing on the menu is our take on southern fried chicken using rabbit leg, in our own blend of flour and spices, served with a celeriac and apple slaw and chipotle ketchup.
In my fridge there’s always a hot sauce, avocado, chorizo, salted butter (I’m a northerner) and yoghurt (not mine – my partner eats it every day for breakfast).
My most-used cookbook is hard to say. I have an addiction to them, with nearly 300 at the last count. My current favourite is Falafel for Breakfast by Michael Rantissi and Kristy Frawley from Kepos Street Kitchen in Sydney. I’m a brunch man and it’s full of dishes I’d like to eat.
My favourite 15-minute supper is stir-fried mushrooms. It uses up ingredients we have in the fridge and we always have brown rice or rice noodles in the cupboard along with a multitude of hot sauces, soy sauce, ketchup manis and fish sauce. To make it, place rice noodles into a bowl, cover with boiling water and leave for three minutes before draining and tossing in a little sesame oil to stop them from sticking. Cut the vegetables – carrots into matchsticks, mushrooms thickly sliced, baby corn cut in half lengthways. Leave peas, beansprouts, drained water chestnuts and sugarsnaps or mangetout whole (use whatever you have available). Heat a wok, add a little peanut or olive pomace oil (not sesame as it has a low flash point and should only be used for flavouring – a tip Ken Hom gave me at Sandy Lane) then add the mushrooms and brown on both sides before adding the remaining vegetables. Move with a spatula rather than tossing the vegetables as this will lose heat from the pan and the vegetables will boil rather than fry. When wilted but still crunchy add the noodles and the seasonings, chilli sauce to give heat and either soy or fish sauce to give saltiness. Add some fresh coriander, some toasted cashews or peanuts and serve immediately.
A trend I see sticking around is grilling over charcoal. It gives such flavour and texture – chefs like their toys and technology but we also like the primeval skills of cooking over open flames.
I know I shouldn’t admit it but my guilty pleasure food is Heinz tomato soup with bread that has butter so thickly spread you can see your teeth marks in it (only eaten in times of emergencies such as man flu moments).
A fellow chef I admire is Michael Caines because he stays true to his beliefs; he has endless energy and has total commitment to the industry he clearly loves.
Never trust a chef who doesn’t cook at home. This industry is all-consuming, 24/7. It’s not something you leave at the office.
I love eating out at The Fish House on Fistral beach because it’s close by, the food is always fresh, with a fish bias, and is cooked to perfection by the chef, owner Paul Harwood (after 15 years of working for Rick Stein he should be able to cook a piece of fish!). Highlights are the sardine masala, tandoori spiced monkfish tail, roasted hot shellfish and the back-to-your-childhood sundaes for dessert.
A place I love that not many people know about is the Rod and Line at Tideford just off the A38. Make no mistake this is a pub, not a gastropub, but the food is generous and fresh (hake fillet fish and chips, monkfish goujons, crab claws, grilled half shell scallops, steaks and bolognaise made from local rare-breed beef), it’s full of locals and takes dogs. It was recommended by Rob Hocking of Buttervilla fame who supplies us with heritage tomatoes and potatoes along with berries through the summer months.
If you gave me a tenner I‘d spend it on a couple of whole fresh Cornish mackerel, some coriander, mint and cashew nuts. I’d grill the mackerel on the BBQ and knock up a quick Asian pesto with the herbs and nuts along with some sesame oil and soy from my cupboard – try it, it’s amazing. Even better when done on a Cornish beach on a summer’s evening.
Written by Rhiannon Batten
First published November 2015
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