It all started as a joke, a mild complaint to the powers-that-be of this lovely mag about how tricky it is to compress all my adventures in, say, Seoul or Montreal into this column. ‘Seriously,’ I whinged, ‘It’d be so much easier somewhere like… Hastings’.
So here I am. Sitting in the café of the handsome Jerwood Gallery, sipping excellent cappuccino while admiring a seascape that includes Hastings’ unmistakeable black wood fishermen’s net huts, tall and eerie even in the blazing sunshine. Some are now fishmongers, selling a transfixing selection of fresh fish and seafood, bright of eye and gleaming of fin on their icy beds.
I’m already planning a raid on Sonny Elliot’s award-wining Rock-A-Nore Fisheries: its own-smoked fish is unbeatable: undyed haddock, salmon – the hot-smoked a creature of especial beauty, golden, buckling and bronze-burnished kippers. But first lunch in another of these sheds, fish’n’chips, of course. Maggie’s (Fishmarket, Rock A Nore Rd, 01424 430205) permanently sports a ‘fully booked’ sign at the bottom of its rickety stairs, and no wonder: the vast, pearly fish in its light batter escapes from the confines of its plate; the chips – crisp and floury, always double-fried – are some of the best I’ve tried. We exit stuffed, our coats fragranced with frying and vinegar, happy as clams.
Unlike many slightly sadder British seaside towns (I know – I live in one), Hastings is lucky enough to have been colonised by people who care about food. The Old Town bristles with intriguing, independent stores: pioneering Judges organic bakery, for instance, or neighbouring cheese and wine specialists, Penbuckles. Just behind the seafront on George Street are bars, cafés and restaurants every second step. I love the eccentricity – and authenticity – of The Boulevard Bookshop and Thai Café: the bookstore morphing into an excellent Thai restaurant by night.
Chilli-stung palates can be soothed at Di Pola’s on Marine Parade, where genuine Italian gelato is made fresh every day by Roberto. Particular love for the hazelnut, but I think I’ll swerve the Marmite and parmesan in favour of an alluring salted caramel. Over at clever Two Bulls Steakhouse these great gelati are served as part of the unabashedly calorific dessert offering. This former pub has become very close to locals’ hearts thanks to some very fine Irish steak – mine, a 28-day dry-aged Angus point end (aka ‘butcher’s secret’) is as good a piece of meat as I’ve had outside the spendy London steak temples at a fraction of the price.
We’re staying at delicious Swan House. It calls itself a guest house, but with its mix of high comfort and the kind of mildly distressed chic I am forever aiming for (and forever missing), it’s like staying with a stylish pal. That pal is owner, Brendan McDonagh, whose breakfasts are legendary: kippers from Rock-A-Nore Fisheries, maybe, or green bacon and fat sausages from Archers of Westfield. It’s in the heart of Hastings Old Town, which has grown into its beauty, with clapboard houses, tiny twittens (alleyways) and designer shops. But it’s over in St Leonards’ that the edgier kids are coming out to play.
Though still sketchy in parts, St Leonard’s is blessed with some gorgeous little cafés and tearooms. I’d be happy to while long hours away scouring the area’s vintage stores, with a pitstop at The Little Larder. Restaurantwise, the jewel in its crown is St Clements, on the evocatively-named Mercatoria (much of the area was designed by architect James Burton); here, chef Nick Hales thrills with fish straight from the local fleet: fillet of seabass scented with Thai spices, maybe, or a thick fishcake served with cloud-light smoked mackerel paté.
Back in the Old Town is my Hastings highlight: what looks like an ironmonger’s from the days when the designer’s palette only came in shades of brown. The window display is a handsome men’s urinal, some stout shaving brushes and a sink. This is AG Hendy & Co Home Store, stylist/ photographer/chef Alastair Hendy’s painstakingly curated emporium, three floors of vintage or classic homeware surprises. But the biggest surprise is out the back, where Hendy has created a tiny restaurant, serving deceptively simple food – fresh fish, homemade sauces, tarts and assemblies that look like they have come straight from the pages of glossy magazines (olive, in fact) and taste every bit as good. A whole bream, grilled into crispness, with a tangle of leaves and homemade mayo; fish soup spooned out of a copper saucepan, heady with brandy; fruit whipped up with thick cream. It’s like a step back into a sepia-tinted past – only the food is so much better.
Seems that those powers-that-be were entirely right: Hastings has plenty to offer the fanatical food lover. This time, it looks like the joke is on me.
Words MARINA O’LOUGHLIN Photographs DAVID THOMAS
Marina O’Loughlin is The Guardian‘s restaurant critic. She stayed at Swan House. For more on Hastings visit 1066country.com