Margate does a good impression of Mykonos - getty
Margate does a good impression of Mykonos – getty

Al fresco dining, table service, beach bars? It’s about time

It’s a rather endearing British trait to use terms such as “French”, “Spanish” or “Italian” as glowing compliments. It’s a less endearing trait to use the word “foreign” as a disparaging sneer, but when we get specific – Nordic! Californian! Moroccan! – we mean it as the highest of accolades.

A nice breakfast terrace at a B&B in Suffolk? “Ooh, this is just like Tuscany!” Sleek, hygienic interiors and well-groomed staff at a boutique hotel in Birmingham? “This is all a bit Scandi, no?” Pavement seating outside a café in Margate? “I feel like I’m in Mykonos!”

This month, as hotels, restaurants, B&Bs and bars have reopened their doors post-lockdown, I’ve felt every inch the tourist in my adopted hometown of Margate. The streets are different to the ones I walked last summer. Every café and restaurant has had to rethink what they do. And some measures feel thoroughly Continental.

“Table service at a bar!” sighed my friend, Aleksandar, a Bulgarian chef, as we sipped cold beers at a beachfront hotel. “Finally, Britain has become a civilised society. Shame it took a pandemic to do it.” Even a traditional bucket-and-spade seaside destination such as Margate has undergone a Continental covid makeover, and Margate actually does Mykonos quite well.

During the week I ate my first “restaurant meal” out, at Margate’s New Street Bistro (@new_street_bistro). In February, this was a trendy dining room seating just 16, an experience that felt intimate and cosy, until the pandemic made “intimate” and “cosy” grubby words. Tomas, the owner and head chef, helped by his teenage son and culinary whizzkid Rio, were at a bit of a loss how to reopen – until they hit upon the idea of speaking to the owners of the Airbnb town house across the road, and hiring their garden. Over the past four weeks they secured planning permission, installed an outdoor kitchen and filled this lovely enclosed terrace with tables seating 26.

“For a while, we’d been thinking about doing something al fresco but, with the restaurant fully booked every night, we never really had the time to get creative,” says Tomas. “But we love working outdoors, and customers seem to love it too.” The menu was delicious but the setting was perhaps the star of the show, with every diner murmuring about how they felt they were in Greece, or Italy, or Spain. Somewhere better than Britain, basically.

Mobile culinary duo Jackson Berg and Natalia Ribbe run Cafe Barletta (@barlettamargate), and in past seasons have dished out their perfect bistro fare in small cafés, wine stores and a corner of Dreamland, Margate’s amusement park. But this summer, with Dreamland closed, they were offered use of a rooftop bar overlooking the sea. “We obviously needed an outdoor venue, and this is perfect,” says Natalia.

“Our tables are two metres apart, every table is served by one server, we don’t admit walk-in drinkers and we’re able to do 60 covers a night like this, spread over two seatings. It’s spacious, less stressful and we have the most amazing sunset views.” I ask Natalia which national comparison Barletta gets the most. “Some people say it’s like a rooftop in Marrakesh, but the sunset is pure Mykonos, apparently,” she says. 

Along Margate’s seafront, the penny arcades are closed, but – with gyms shut – there’s paddle-board yoga in the tidal pool, clusters of people downward dogging on the beach. I can almost imagine I’m in Ibiza, or Santa Monica in California.

Obviously, I’m particularly grateful to Margate for mimicking the best of my international holidays, given that I’m not intending to fly this summer. But in this post-lockdown world, my hometown feels brand new, and I feel like a lucky tourist. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. There are some winners, and some losers, on every high street, but every business that has reopened has undergone a revamp – and it’s a delight to explore these formerly familiar favourite spots of mine, and marvel at the gusto and creativity the hospitality trade has shown in challenging circumstances.

So, if you’re planning a staycation in a British travel destination, please rest assured that the talk of the town is not nimbyish hostility, selfishness or snobbery towards visitors. We’re far too busy congratulating ourselves on how French we feel to be cross about that. Bienvenue, day-trippers. Hola, holidaymakers. Velkommen, travellers.