Obviously, it rains on the day I go to Margate. The Great British summer, out in force for a trip to the Kent seaside. As the droplets lash down from a sky of grey, I wonder how exactly a pop-up, Catalan-style beach bar is going to work in one of the town's carparks.
But in the shadow of the ferris wheel and rollercoasters of retro theme park Dreamland, is Xiringuito—pronounced chi-rin-gito like "chiringuito," the Spanish term given to small beach bars. A bright white pyramid structure from the outside; inside, it pops with primary colours and has surprisingly high-end décor for a restaurant housed in what is essentially a tent.
In Xiringuito's kitchen is the equally sunny duo of chef Jackson Berg and front-of-house Conor Sheehan, prepping for their Friday lunchtime service.
Until April this year, co-owners Berg and Sheehan worked together at Bistrotheque restaurant in East London. Before that, the old high-school friends held the fort at Hoi Polloi and between them, have also done stints at Fifteen, Soho House, and St John.
Their idea for Xiringuito—christened a "moveable feast"—was two years in the making. It all revolves around the restaurant's transferrable structure (designed by award-winning architect Asif Khan) which can be packed with their kitchen to migrate with the seasons, popping up wherever takes their fancy.
"Jackson and I were racking our brains about what we were going to do for ages and then we came up with this idea," says Sheehan. "I've been to Barcelona loads, so I was inspired by seeing the chiringuitos. They're always fun, they're always boozy, and the food will always be simple, but really good."
Concept decided, a team trip last year led Sheehan and Berg to Margate, where Xiringuito will pitch up for the next three months.
"We came here for a foraging and sourcing trip for Bistrotheque," explains Berg. "We did a dinner in Broadstairs using all these amazing local, seasonal ingredients and then we came to Margate and met a lot of great people. It seemed like a great place to begin."
Their mainly-British-but-with-an-international-influence menu will change slightly each day, keeping a focus on fish and local foraged produce, plus cocktails and a small wine list. They're also going big on ice creams, giving classic iced treats a modern makeover. One dish the pair are particularly proud of is Berg's soft shell crab burger with a special curry sauce, which he's making for me today.
"On holiday in India, I had a whole crab that had been beaten up with a cleaver then mixed up in a curry sauce, and it was so nice that I didn't want it to end. I realised we could use this as our burger," Berg says, firing up the fryers for the curry sauce. "I had to get the curry sauce just right. It's got just about every spice around in it and then I cook it with reduced-down chicken stock, then I put loads of peanut butter in it. Then I put salt in because everyone loves salt, don't they?"
Yep. Berg chucks the little crab in a tempura batter made with ice-cold sparkling water, then plunges it into the deep fryer. A few minutes on each side and it's ready to be encased in a brioche bun, with homemade aioli (the ubiquitous Spanish dip), a healthy measure of the sweet and spicy curry sauce, and some coriander, pea shoots, and spring onions. Berg looks pleased with the end result.
"I think that's the best one I've ever made," he says.
I almost feel bad as I demolish it, getting into a slightly embarrassing finger-licking situation from all the juicy flavours.
As Berg points out, you can't have a seaside cafe without ice cream. American dessert chef Julia Howe is in charge of all things sweet at Xiringuito and her signature dish is a chocolate chili ice cream taco. Be still, my beating stomach. Howe was inspired by a frozen dessert in America for this dish.
"There's something called the 'choco taco' which is a cheapo, pre-packaged kind of thing you get at any gas station," she explains. "So I wanted to play on something that I grew up with." It's also a riff on the old British ice cream wafer sandwiches that always seemed impossible to eat as a kid. By using a taco, you've ingeniously got a little biscuit curve to act as a reservoir for all that melted ice cream. Howe hand-makes every single one of her buckwheat tacos with a waffle iron and her chili-chocolate ice cream is also homemade, not to mention delicious.
Howe carves a block of the chocolate ice cream into the right size for her taco shell, dips it in a chocolate sauce that hardens, and places it in the sweet taco with a little piping of whipped cream.
"Then I top it with a cayenne and salt brittle," she says. "I never make any dessert without salt."
No complaints here, as I take a big bite. "You're the first the person I've seen actually eat it with their hands here!" Howe exclaims. Oh. "Yeah, weirdly, people have been eating it with knives, forks, or spoons."
Still, it's easy to see how people could get confused when something usually delivered from a van is elevated to a china plate in a restaurant. That's my excuse, anyway. As the Margate locals stick their heads in to book a table at Xiringuito for the weekend, Sheehan says one of the reasons they chose to leave London was the expense of opening a restaurant in the capital.
"We did some research and to open up a proper restaurant in London was like £500,000—and that was just to get it open," he explains. "This is a fun thing to do, and I love the idea of going on tour." Margate has made Xiringuito feel welcome, too.
"There's a lot of passion in this town. Everyone you speak to who has moved out here is like, 'It's amazing' and not just because of property prices—it's because there's lots of creative people moving down here," says Sheehan. "There's a real community, everyone looking out for each other so it seemed like an interesting place to do it."
All over town, it's a similar story for other "DFLs" ("Down From Londons," as the locals like to brand them) setting up shop recently. Following the influx of artists and musicians who have been attracted to the Kent town by cheap rents and seaside living, the foodie crew have followed. Over the past year, a host of independent restaurants, bars, and cafes have started popping up.
One of these is Cheesy Tiger, a small wine bar on the harbour, right next to the Turner Contemporary gallery. Joanna Harvey, her boyfriend Tom, and their dog Torvig moved down from Hackney last year and have transformed the seaside shack into a bar that serves small plates and bio-dynamic wine.
"It's a bit like a social club in here, just relaxed drinking and eating," says Harvey. "We love cheese and good wine and realised there wasn't anyone doing it here."
As I drink a large mug of tea and try a wedge of Reblochon cheese, one of Cheesy Tiger's daily deliveries arrives: a box stuffed with fresh Kent asparagus, lettuce, and herbs. As the Xiringuito guys also realised, Kent is practically a garden of Eden for fresh produce.
"The food scene here works because it's all local—everything comes from the land or the sea," says Harvey. "There's also things like the Garden Gate Project, which is a community garden, which is great to get on board with." So what's the rising allure of Margate for London's food scene?
"I think people move down here to be beside the sea," says Harvey. "Plus, London is only an hour and half away on a fast train. In London, people are being forced out as the rents are rising too much, but here it's different. We've got a five year lease which gives us more stability and security to grow a business."
A few streets away is Hantverk and Found, a restaurant and gallery set up by chef Kate de Syllas. De Syllas has also been in Margate for a year, moving down from London after working for a charity.
"I had a beach hut in Whitstable for years, but I felt there was more of a vibe in Margate," she says. "I loved what places like Wheelers restaurant were doing in Whitstable and felt there wasn't really anyone cooking up fish like that well in Margate, so I thought I would give it a try."
De Syllas' restaurant boasts a banging seasonal seafood menu of all different world influences, from seared scallops with chimichurri to a seafood brik with harissa, sumac, and pomegranate. It's fast become become a favourite with the locals, as she is another chef helping to put Margate on the food map. Alongside Xiringuito, De Syllas and Harvey's offerings are the strongest indication yet of Margate being a seaside town on the cusp of an exciting food revolution, rather than just soggy fish 'n' chips on the beach.
Back in Xiringuito and the guys are almost ready to open for service. The rain has even started to lift for the day. After their summer busman's holiday on the Kent coast, they have big plans for where their nomadic restaurant could journey to next.
"We want to go to Manchester and put it in a warehouse for the winter," says Sheehan.
"After the winter, we'd quite like to do it in an international location," adds Berg. "Miami or Ibiza would be cool." "I'd like Napa or Buenos Aires, maybe," says Sheehan.
Anywhere to escape the good old British rain. It's lucky that the possibilities for Xiringuito really are endless.