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Wheelers of Whitstable: Britain’s best oyster bar
The best oysters in Britain are just an hour away from London.
London is a fantastic, beautiful city. But, as our travel section attests, even the dazzling urbanites on the Methods team need a break now and again.
Some members of the team chose Japan, others Berlin, some a saucy weekend at a crazy hotel, but frankly I prefer to do my romancin’ the old fashioned way: In a wet seaside town with plenty of booze, which is why when we need a break from the hustle of the big smoke, we pile into the nearest Zipcar and head east to sample the delights of Whitstable, and one place in particular: Wheelers.
Whitstable itself is a lovely little town. Nestled on a stretch of often-forgotten coast, it manages to avoid the mass tourism of nearby Canterbury, and has just enough edge to keep things interesting while avoiding going full-on Brighton (not that that’s always a bad thing). It’s the kind of place you could happily move to and spend your days working on that novel/in the fish and chip shop, safe in the knowledge that there’s always a decent pub within spitting distance.
What really makes the place stand out though is its incredible seafood. Most of it is hauled right off the beach and into local kitchens, and there’s a plethora of damn fine dining options around. I had a lobster here once that made me well up a little bit, but for sheer ‘holy shit I think I’m going to die because I’m too happy to be alive-ness’ Wheelers is where it’s at. Here’s why.
From the outside, it doesn’t look like much. Faded rose paint is obscured by a dozen hand-chalked signs offering take away crab, prawns and cockles, and once you step inside you are confronted by a tiny fishbar with pots of crustaceans and fishcakes on display. At this point I should mention that it’s a good idea to book in advance, because that bar seats three people, and the restaurant itself will manage 12 at a push. Wheeler’s is TINY. Its décor puts you in mind of a slightly eccentric aunt’s living room, with chintzy table cloths decorated with tiny fish patterns, while menus are gigantic laminated sheets. If you need to go to the loo, you’ll be leaving the restaurant, walking around the block to the bottom of the garden, and using the little outside toilet. Don’t be a snob about this though, because the food is fucking incredible.
It’s also worth mentioning that the place is BYOB, but luckily there’s a very good offy just opposite. Particularly useful because we’d managed to guzzle down a bottle of prosecco by the time our starters arrived (the service was very good, we’re just massive pissheads), so I was able to nip out and refuel whenever we needed it.
As the name suggests, Wheeler’s is all about the Oysters, with Whitstable natives or Rock Oysters available in a variety of styles, including deep-fried in an excellent Guinness tempura batter. We decided to mix it up, with a dozen regulars with tobasco and vinegar, and half dozen fried. These are insanely fresh, with a lovely salty tang. I should mention that I used to be one of those pussies who didn’t like the idea of Oysters, but I tried them once (to impress a girl obviously. Why else would I do anything?) and since then have become a shellfish fiend.
These are probably the finest I‘ve ever had, served perfectly chilled. Similarly the battered Oysters are light and fluffy outside, piping hot in the centre. It’s often said that Oysters get you.. well… hot n’ horny, but to be honest I think it’s more a state of incredible relaxation. Your entire body just decides that, hey man, everything will be fine, so just chill out and enjoy life.
The oysters may be on the sign outside, but the rest of the courses are equally impressive. To be honest you’d probably be fine just having oysters, but we decided to go the whole hog and have starters as well. My wife went for an excellent John Dory Ceviche, which was more refreshing than many of the other options, with a cutting Lime and Chilli sauce, softened by a creamy crab and mouli salad on the side.
I have eyes bigger than my stomach (which is quite a feat) and had noticed the crab cakes at the bar earlier. Pan fried and served with a Lobster tempura and spicy harissa dressing, the whole dish has a lot going on, but flavours complement each other, the harissa just manages to clean your palette after the creamy crab without getting too overheated.
Other options include roasted scallops which are beautifully indulgent, served with sticky, glazed pig’s cheek and a black pudding scotch egg that frankly has to be tried to be believed.
In the past I’ve opted for Brill, but this time I went for the Zander, roasted with black garlic and served on a wild mushroom risotto. It‘s amazing. It slides apart on the fork and melts in the mouth, but has a thick, buttery taste that leaves you with a feeling of satisfaction that even a fine steak would struggle to match. My wife had the Turbot, with delicate steamed prawn dumplings and a ‘seaweed ash’ that added a surprising snap. Cep caviar was light but again, full of flavour.
By this point we were both slipping into food comas, but were urged on by the very posh family next to us (there was another group in tonight who were really LOUD, so we’d formed a coalition against them on our side of the room. It’s easy to make friends when you’re all getting pissed in the same family living room). I was worried that dessert wouldn’t stand up to the standards of the rest of the night as I’ve found restaurants often fall short at this point, but I had a delicious pear tart with home made blue cheese ice cream that was perfectly salty without being overbearing.
Throughout the evening we were able to have conversations with our fellow diners (and the chef at one point, who happily sent one group off with a sample of the culture he uses to make the excellent bread), as the whole place has a friendly, intimate atmosphere that seems to dispel British reserve, but it would also be ideal for a romantic couple’s night, or a group dinner.
It’s actually hard to recommend the place enough. I would suggest that you grab an AirBnB if you’re just down for dinner, because a walk along the seafront helps the digestion (and will lead you to yet more excellent pubs for a nightcap), and it will give you a chance to take a few extra fishcakes home with you, and possibly work off some of the after effects of the oysters and fizz.
Check out the Wheelers website for more details and bookings.