The Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company, which operates several restaurants and a hotel in Whitstable, can trace its history back to the 1400s and lays claim to being Europe's oldest surviving commercial enterprise.
The popularity of Whitstable's native oysters grew for hundreds of years, reaching its apogee in the 1850s, when the company, then a cooperative of local fishermen and oyster farmers, shipped as many as 80 million oysters a year to London's Billingsgate Market.
Disease, war and fashion put paid to the town's oyster fishery in the 1920s, but a revival, led by the current (private) owners of the Whitstable Oyster Company has made the town's succulent mollusc a valued and desirable commodity again.
I visited the company's Royal Naval Oyster Stores restaurant in September and struck up a conversation in the casual oyster bar with some businessmen who had come down from a nearby conference just to eat oysters. Located in a handsome, 18th century brick building with a venerable beamed ceiling, the restaurant offers a big selection of local fish, shellfish and crustaceans. Outside of the restaurant's scheduled lunch and dinner hours, visitors can enjoy a beer, a plateful of oysters and some bread and butter at wooden trestle tables in the bar. The ambiance may be laid back and casual but the oyster's shucked to order in front of you and the sea view (and the prices) are first class. There is no elaborate haute cuisine here. Instead, expect the best local ingredients, simply cooked. The hand cut chips were very, very good.
Royal Naval Oyster Stores Essentials
- Address: Royal Native Oyster Stores, Horsebridge, Whitstable, Kent, CT5 1BU
- Telephone: +44 (0) 1227 276 856
- Open: Mon-Thurs 12 to 2:30 and 6:30 to 9; Fri all day from noon to 9:30, Sat noon to 9:45, Sunday noon to 8:30. Booking for the oyster bar is probably unnecessary but wise for the restaurant when natives are in season.
- Prices: Average to high. 1/2 dozen native oysters in September 2010 were £16, rock oysters were £9. Other main course in 2010 ranged from £12.50 to £28.
- Visit their website
As good as it is, the Royal Oyster Stores, in its striking brick building on the beach, can be something of a tourist draw in oyster season. Here are some other good choices:
- Wheeler's Oyster Bar 8 High Street, Whitstable, +44 (0)1227 273 311. This tiny, pink fronted restaurant dates from the town's Victorian heyday. Everything is right off the boat. Cash only and BYOB.
- The Crab and Winkle - South Quay, The Harbour, Whitstable, +44 (0)1227 779377 Restaurant and fishmarket overlooking the working fishing harbour.
- The Sportsman A Michelin-starred gastropub on the beach in Seasalter.