I’ve always loved Brighton, loved its rackety, arty city-on-the-sea vibe, its air of counter-culturalism and exquisite Regency architecture. But, until recently, it hasn’t been somewhere I’ve gone for food. Past trips have usually seen me in English’s, ignoring the sometimes stodgy, old-school cooking for the joys of its oysters and fustily vintage interiors, or eating fish and chips on the beach.
But what’s this? Condé Nast Traveller magazine has announced that Brighton is the best UK city for restaurants and bars. Can this be true? Did it happen in the five minutes my back was turned? There’s only one thing for it. I’m going to see how many restaurants I can cram into a (busy, greedy) long weekend.
Sipping a Court Garden fizz from nearby Ditchling and snacking on some sultry Noir de Bigorre ham at Plateau, a lovely little wine bar that specialises in natural and biodynamic wines, I check out some of the recent openings. There’s an outpost of raucous burger joint Meatliquor, but those I can increasingly get anywhere;a fish restaurant called, er, Fish + Liquor located at the bustling beach arches, but black marks for being so unoriginal. In any case, if I want a restaurant at the beach, I’ll make it seafood heroes, Riddle & Finns, for fruits de mer and their fragrant Keralan fish curry with a crisp Picpoul.
There are new brewhouses, such as Bison Beer Crafthouse, and you can’t stagger more than a few metres without hitting an artisan coffee shop, especially in the North Laine (I like local coffee roasters, Small Batch). There’s The Salt Room, the latest from the guys behind The Coal Shed, just opposite the West Pier: a celebration of seafood that looks a bit slick and over-designed for my romanticised idea of Brighton.
In the end, geography dictates my first choice: the newly relaunched Gingerman, one of the city’s most fêted indie restaurants, is just a stroll away from my deliciously quirky hotel, The Neo, in amongst the glamorous white stucco streets behind the seafront. This is the original outpost of The Ginger Group, a small, much-loved family of four restaurants, open since 1998. It’s had a complete makeover, ditching its previously over-upholstered beigeness for something a lot more contemporary and bracing.
The menu, too, is pitched exhilaratingly in today: we eat mackerel, both seared and pickled, with ribbons of acidulated cucumber and a breaded oyster on a tiny savoury ‘muffin’; a duck egg curry scented with curry leaves served with a lacy dosa; and a wonderful treatment of duck offal – heart and liver – with pear and miso glaze. Charming staff and a clever wine list promise a new classic in the making. Everything is more or less walking distance, so a nightcap in Kemptown’s Plotting Parlour means blowing away a few white wine-induced cobwebs rather than a great trek. Worth it, too, to perch on old cinema seats for a punchy ginger and chilli martini.
One of Brighton’s most shining new stars is in The Lanes: chef Michael Bremner’s 64 Degrees has blasted a touch of the 21st century into this occasionally twee tangle of tiny streets and helped kickstart Brighton’s culinary renaissance. I have a special place in my heart for its chicken wings, with blades of dehydrated kimchi and airy foam of Barkham blue cheese, and its knödel with cabbage and smoked butter. But everything on the short menu delivers a bit of a thrill. They’ve now introduced ‘64 Degrees Late’ – inspired by the open-all-hours ethic of Barcelona: small plates (lobster croquettes, or pickled pig’s cheek with pork fat brioche) and cocktails into the small hours.
In London, the Pimlico outpost of the chic Artist Residence Hotel contains the second 64 Degrees. Here in Brighton, the suitably arty hotel hosts tiny, 20-seat The Set. Overlooked by Disney prints (and, sadly, on a communal table) we eat a set menu – hence the name – of playful, inventive dishes with a magpie approach to ingredients. You might find venison with a block of fried mac ’n’ cheese, or mackerel with broad beans, ‘vindaloo bacon’ and atchar, or an outrageous Malteaser (sic) mousse with brown butter, banana and malty crumbs. This is Brighton, so there are equally clever offerings for vegetarians too: leeks with their ‘ash’, smoked cheese and candied pecans. Presentation is modishly chaotic. Chefs Semone Bonner and Dan Kelly are ex-The Gingerman Group: Brighton may be a city, but it has all the cosy appeal of a small town where everyone knows everyone else.
Friday lunchtimes mean the Street Diner collective on Queen’s Road, and a riot of stalls: meaty local hero, Troll’s Pantry and its gourmet burgers (we have the Imperial, a beast of a thing made from 35-day-aged steak, St Giles cheese, ketchup, mustard and pickles); award-winning Little Blue Smokehouse for smoked ox tongue pastrami and pulled pork brisket pastrami (I know!); sustainable salt cod and tempura fish subs from Olly’s Fish Shack.
There’s no shortage of innovation here, but even in a town not afraid to take risks, chef-patron Douglas McMaster’s Silo stands out. With its mammoth recycler/composter in the vestibule, displays of ‘yesterday’s’ bread and mushrooms grown in coffee grounds, this extraordinary place aims to be the UK’s first zero-waste restaurant. But McMaster’s background at such luminaries as London’s St John means that the worthiness translates deliciously: heavenly pastries rich with their own-churned butter; chewy sourdough made from ancient varieties of grain milled in-house on Gunther, Silo’s old-fashioned flour mill; meat from free-range animals (we have delicate poached chicken, with sprout tops and mustardy rye breadcrumbs).
Brighton is glowing, the sun twinkling on the sea as we trudge back up to the train. Is it the UK’s best food city? I couldn’t possibly say. But when even the station offers foodie delights – a cluster of indie food stalls; gin with unlimited Fever Tree tonic and sirloin steak sarnie, at a bar made from suitcases at The Cyclist Refreshment Room, you know this is a city that takes food seriously. One thing’s for sure, its reputation as somewhere to have a lot of good, naughty fun is totally intact.