The first time I heard about Whitstable was in a car park in South London, hanging out with a couple of guys from the East End who were shucking oysters.
As they cracked open the juicy molluscs—a pound a go, served with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a dash of Tabasco—they told me they'd been to Whitstable that morning to pick up a few boxes. They were, apparently, "the best oysters in the world."
Mate, I've been to the Padstow oyster festival, I thought loftily, I know oysters.
But when I got home, I Googled "Whitstable" and realised that Padstow had some serious competition. I headed down to Whitstable, located on the north coast of Kent, the very next day—just in time for its annual ten-day oyster festival.
This was five years ago and I've been making the pilgrimage back several times a year since then. It seems those car park shuckers were bang on, Whitstable oysters really are among the world's best.
A small town that developed a strong fishing industry at the start of the 20th century, Whitstable x was always known for its oysters. At its peak, it's estimated that the town was going through 50 million a year, all thanks to its thriving sea beds, which have produced an abundance of oysters for hundreds of years. The Romans treated Whitstable like their own personal McDonald's-on-sea Drive Thru, sweeping up monster hauls of oysters with dredgers and trailing them in nets through the sea, snacking on them as they went.
The lower classes of Edwardian and Victorian England also relied on oysters as a cheap form of sustenance. As Sam Weller in Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers notes: "It's a very remarkable circumstance that poverty and oysters always seem to go together."
But bombing of Whitstable during the two World Wars slowed its oyster trade and in 1952, the train line that had transported the molluscs to London's Billingsgate Market went bust. A year later, a flood took out many of the town's businesses and homes.
In spite of this one tiny restaurant has weathered the storm to see Whitstable once again become a mecca for oysterphiles. This year, it celebrates it 160th birthday.
Wheelers Oyster Bar is a short walk back from the seafront. It may be small, but there's no way to miss it on the Whitstable high street, shouting its presence with a hot-pink front and a giant Monty Python-esque hand holding onto half a dozen of the town's finest bivalves.
"We're the oldest seafood restaurant in the UK," says head chef Mark Stubbs, who has been at the helm of Wheelers' kitchens for 20 years.
Mary-Ann Wheeler—wife of famed local fisherman Richard "Leggy" Wheeler—opened Wheelers in 1856, selling fresh seafood for the locals. Its current owner is Delia Fitt, who took over the restaurant when her parents died in the 70s.
There's only room for four people to sit at the bar, which doubles up as their seafood shop counter. Then, it's through a small door to the parlor. Imagine your eccentric granny's living room with a lifetime of photos, ornaments, and knick-knacks adorning the walls—plus few extra chairs thrown in—and you've got the picture. Twelve seats, four sittings a day, six days a week—oh, and they're all booked out two months in advance.
On the day I pull up a chair at the bar, Fitt must turn away about 20 people in the two hours I spent going snout-first into a plate of fishy delights.
"We cook up modern British and European seafood dishes here," says Stubbs. "I use products that are on my doorstep, which is seafood. I've got such an abundance of it around me, so that's really the whole concept of Wheelers."
And while Stubbs cooks some seriously stunning dishes as part of his menu (scallops with pork belly, brown shrimp dashi, lobster lasagne), he explains that the charm of Wheelers is a big pull for diners.
"The food is a massive part of the experience but so is the ambience and history, it all translates to your dining experience," he says. "It's what keeps people coming back. We don't have any airs and graces. We had a critic who came in once and called the restaurant 'a dark, dingy room.' I said, 'What would you like me to do? Make it light and airy and the same as everyone else's restaurants?' but he said 'No! Don't do that!' There aren't many places like this left. We have some big chefs who come in here to eat, like Albert Roux, who said to me, 'People always think the grass is greener. You love this place, so you should cherish it and enjoy it.'"
Wheelers is currently planning a four-month refit to create a bigger kitchen, with additional room for a communal table and another seafood bar, but the parlor will remain untouched.
"I'd be lynched if I changed anything about that," says Stubbs.
Part of the reason Wheelers feels so homely is that it functions as a second home for Fitt. When she took over the running of the restaurant, the parlour was mainly used to entertain family and friends—before the public got wind and started booking up tables. It doesn't have an alcohol license, so you're free to BYOB from the aptly titled and handily placed "The Offy" opposite.
"When I started here, we really didn't know how it was going to work out. We only had a copper pot for cooking lobsters and crabs in the kitchen, along with a tiny baby Belling," remembers Fitt. "In my parents' time in the 30s, there was even less—just a grill for making grilled sole, or perhaps skate with brown butter and caperberries. But it's oysters that make up so much of our menu, I think because of the history of people eating them in place of meat and local fishermen bringing them home."
About those oysters: "There's a few reasons why oysters in Whitstable are so good," Stubbs explains. "It's the salinity and the mineral content in the water—when they're at their peak, they're fantastic."
And that whole thing about not eating oysters when there's an "R" in the month?
"We've got two types of oyster, a cultivated oyster that we grow here and a native, wild oyster called ostrea edulis which is a very good oyster," Stubbs says. "It's been around since the Roman times. Native oysters are only eaten in months with an 'R' as afterwards, the quality deteriorates. When they're in season from September through to April, they're easier to harvest. They prefer a cold climate and the meat has had a chance to firm up. It's a much better eating experience than in the summer."
For a hungry seafood fan, walking along the seafront and up to Whitstable harbor is the dream. All year round, small wooden shacks offer half a dozen oysters cracked open on the spot for a fiver, or half a grilled lobster and chips for £7. Or there are the plates of freshly fried whitebait and dressed crab on offer from the beach's pick-and-mix food stalls.
But it's the oysters that bring people from all over the world to Whitstable. Stubbs reckons that on a good day, the team at Wheelers might get through 300 to 500 oysters. During the festival, it can go up to 10,000.
Like Grace Jones, I want to be known as a woman who shucks her own oysters, so I ask Stubbs to show me the best technique. It starts with putting a cloth down over the oyster, so the shucker won't puncture my hand.
"Make sure you start with the deep shell side set down, as if they're upside down. All that liquor will drain out from them," he explains. "The heel of the oyster: you want to hit it just off the left-hand side, as the right-hand side is the muscle. So once the shucker is in, slide the muscle right the way into the back to release it. The top shell will pop off, then in one clean cut, turn it over and present it on to the plate."
It's a beautiful, plump little pink nugget, so I squeeze a bit of lemon on it and down it—a tangy, slightly metallic sucker punch from the sea.
"I love it when people come to Wheelers and they're not sure about the place," Stubbs tells me, as I revel in my first properly shucked oyster. "Watching them leave happy, thinking, 'Blimey, I wasn't expecting that' is just brilliant."
I go back into the parlor to look at Fitt's old family photos and she shows me a picture of the woman who started it all, Mary-Ann Wheeler.
"160 years on," she ruminates. "I wonder what she would have thought about it? We've stuck to our secret, which is honesty and hard work, so I see no reason why it shouldn't go on for another 160 years."
For more traditional seafood, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.