For mollusc maniacs arriving at the oyster festival, it’s hard to know where to start. The world is your bivalve. So we’ve compiled a list of some of the best places to fill your boots, from an oyster and a pint at the Crab and Winkle, to the tasting menu at the superb Sportsman in nearby Seasalter.
1. For a traditional oyster: Wheelers Oyster Bar
Located in the heart of Whitstable, the distinctively salmon pink-fronted Wheelers Oyster Bar is the oldest restaurant in town, founded by a dredger back in 1856. The back parlour feels frozen in time (in a good way). It’s often described as being like a granny’s living room: an endearing clutter of antique clocks, wall-mounted plates, mismatched chairs and country kitchen tables.
Wheelers Oyster Bar doesn’t have an alcohol licence, so it’s strictly BYOB with no corkage charge: there’s a convenient off-licence just over the road or bring something special from home. The restaurant grows its own salad leaves and churns its own ice cream, and all the locally caught or cultivated seafood is superb. But surely it would be missing the point not to sample the oysters here: eat them simply with a squeeze of lemon, or try something a little more adventurous like the oyster fritters with a sea lettuce mayonnaise. Booking is absolutely essential here, the earlier the better. To find our more, read Rachel Walker’s interview with owner Delia Fitt.
8 High St, Whitstable, CT5 1BQ
2. For a competitive oyster: The Oyster Eating Challenge
As long as you don’t like to savour your food, or suffer from stage fright, then the Oyster Eating Challenge is a must for gluttons. The competition kicks off on the Sunday afternoon of the Oyster Festival on the Harbour Stage. The challenge is a simple one: to eat six oysters and drink half a pint in the fastest time. You really need to be sub 10 seconds to be in with a chance of winning. A great spectator sport, and even more fun to participate.
Entry £6, registration on the day, over-18s only
The Harbour Stage, Sunday 27 July, 2.15pm-4pm
3. For a Michelin-starred oyster: The Sportsman
It might look like a slighty down-at-heel country pub, but the Sportsman in nearby Seasalter, a short walk along the coast from Whitstable, is one of the great dining experiences in the UK. It really is that good. Obsessive chef-owner Stephen Harris selects the best produce from local farms, boats and game dealers for his ever-changing menu and is a keen forager too. He even churns his own butter and makes his own sea salt. Either choose the sensational tasting menu (highly recommended, £65), or pick what you fancy from the board, chalked up each morning – where local oysters often make an appearance, such as rock oysters and hot chorizo (£1.20 each) or native Whitstable oysters (when in season, £2.95 each). A tip: the slip sole grilled with seaweed butter is fantastic.
Booking is essential here too. If you would like to try the tasting menu, you will need to let them know at least 48 hours in advance. It is available for tables of six or less and must be taken by the whole table. The tasting menu is not currently available on Saturdays or Sundays.
On the old coastal road between Whitstable and Faversham
Seasalter, Whitstable, CT5 4BP
4. For a historic oyster: The Whitstable Oyster Company
The Whitstable Oyster Company can trace its origins back to the 1400s. Indeed, it’s one of the oldest companies in Europe and has a long, rich history of farming the famous Whitstable native. The company’s trading peak was round the 1850s, when it was sending as many as 80 million oysters to Billingsgate Market every year. But its fortunes waned and it was all but defunct until its resuscitation around 30 years ago, when new owners opened a seafood restaurant in the old oyster stores and commenced production of the famous Whitstable native.
Arguably it was this restaurant that put Whitstable on the foodie map and sparked the town’s DFL (Down From London) led revival. It has its critics today, but it’s as mobbed as ever and it’s not hard to see why: it has bags of atmosphere, with a terrific dining room and an unbeatable spot smack bang on the promenade, and the wonderfully fresh, local seafood is excellent. Whatever you choose, make sure you kick off by paying homage to the company’s heritage with half a dozen oysters. (Whitstable native oysters, when in season, £18; Irish rock oysters, £11; Whitstable Oyster Co rock oysters, £12).
The Royal Native Oyster Stores, Horsebridge, Whitstable, CT5 1BU
5. For an oyster and a pint: The Crab and Winkle
Oysters don’t always have to be washed down with expensive fizz or a chilled Chablis. In the informal setting of the Crab and Winkle, enjoy half a dozen oysters (battered, grilled or natural) with a pint of Whitstable Oyster Stout: served slighly chilled, its rich, deep chocolate and mocha notes make it a perfect match (£3.90/330ml). On a sunny day the balcony tables fill up quickly at the harbourside restaurant. If you manage to bag one, then follow your oyster appetiser with one of the classic seaside dishes: mussels and chips, fish pie or beer-battered cod.
South Quay, The Harbour, Whitstable, Kent CT5 1AB
6. For an oyster on-the-go: The Harbour Food Fair
You don’t have to embark upon a lengthy lunch to enjoy oysters at the Whitstable Festival. On the opening weekend, plenty of oyster stands will set up shop in the harbour to cater for the many thousands of hungry revellers. It means that you can sample different varieties of oysters, served in lots of different ways: a squeeze of lemon, a dash of Tabasco, a splash of red wine vinegar. Wander round at leisure and enjoy this original, natural and delicious fast food.