BrightonWords Andy Lynes
Photography Laura Edwards
Once you’ve seen the Royal Pavilion, you’ll never forget it. An exotic assemblage of domes, minarets and filagreed ornamental arches, it’s the mini-Taj Mahal of the English south coast. It’s impressive and faintly ridiculous at the same time; you could fashion a quite convincing scale model from meringue, fondant fancies and iced gems. Built by the famously decadent Prince Regent (later King George IV) in the late 18th and early 19th century as a grand crash pad by the sea, the Royal Pavilion is the perfect metaphor for a city that loves to enjoy itself and refuses to take itself too seriously.
The spirit of Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcards is alive and well in the gaudy delights of the world-famous Palace Pier, and in the spirited stag and hen parties that descend on the city at weekends to take advantage of its plentiful drinking barns and lively club scene. However, there’s far more to Brighton than the now-traditional dirty weekend. Large artistic, gay and student populations mean the city positively crackles with creative energy that feeds into vibrant music, theatre and arts scenes.
Although Brighton is mobbed every Bank Holiday by day-trippers (who, if they don’t leave home early enough, will find themselves sitting in the traffic jam of their nightmares – tip: arrive by train), there’s never a bad time to visit. In May, the city hosts the Brighton Festival, the largest arts event outside of Edinburgh; August sees Pride Summer Festival week topped off by a glamorous parade and wild party in Preston Park, and the rest of the year is studded with events such as the Brighton Marathon, the London to Brighton Bike Ride, Ladies Day at the Brighton races and theworld-famous vintage car rally, the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.
And you haven’t really seen Brighton in all its aching, melancholic glory until you’ve walked from Palace Pier along the deserted seafront into neighbouring Hove, or ducked out of the rain into Marrocco’s Italian cafe for a warming hot chocolate or even a scoop of their top-notch homemade ice cream.
Brighton is sometimes referred to as ‘London-by-the-Sea’ – but the comparison between a centre of world commerce and a smallish tourist-driven seaside resort is a little puzzling. What really unites both cities is that each is a collection of unique neighbourhoods and, like London, Brighton’s food and drink scene has spread out across many of its communities.
Kemp Town, an intriguing mix of sleaze and sophistication, sits east of the traditional centre of town, Old Steine. As well as being the epicentre of gay Brighton, it’s known as the city’s current culinary hot spot. Recent arrivals include The Ginger Dog gastropub, the fourth outpost of top local chef Ben McKellar’s popular Gingerman empire; artisan takeaway pizza joint Pizzaface and The Butlers Wine Cellar, run by charismatic wine merchant and expert Henry Butler. Kemp Town is also home to some of the city’s best boutique hotels including Square and Kemp Townhouse, and is a great area for bargain hunting in the daily flea market or antique shops.
In the city centre, you’ll find the recently anointed ‘Cultural Quarter’ sprawling around the Brighton Dome entertainment complex and Theatre Royal. The Quarter is a magnet for quality mid-market chains such as Pizza Express, Carluccio’s and Côte, but it’s also the home of modern Indian restaurant The Chilli Pickle, hip wine shop/bar Ten Green Bottles and home-grown chain Bill’s Produce Store (which recently launched in London). On a summer’s evening, the scene is positively European with drinkers and diners spilling from pubs, bars and restaurants onto the pavements.
The nearby North Laine area is as boho as you like and the place to go if you’re after vintage clothes, second-hand books, music, comic books or arts and crafts. It’s also rammed with coffee shops, cafes (including organic and vegetarian establishments), sandwich bars and hole-in-the wall restaurants. It’s one of the best areas for food shopping too, with Infinity Foods and its range of organic and vegetarian treats plus excellent in-store bakery; the wonderful Yum Yum Oriental Market; and Heston Blumenthal’s favourite retro sweet shop, Suck It and Sea. The area is also home to the Brighton Farm Market, the city’s first regular farmers’ market, which is held in an atmospheric covered courtyard. It’s a great shop window for the excellent local produce, including some of the best lamb in the country and wonderfully fresh seafood.
In the city centre and seafront area there has long been tension between the need to attract and feed bargain-hungry day-trippers and the demand for quality grub. Brighton will never be a ‘fine dining’ kind of town – it stays up too late and hastily pulls on its trousers just in time to catch the morning bus to work to be that. But, increasingly, Brighton knows good food when it sees it. You’ll still see plenty of ‘two courses for £5.95’ signs outside bog-standard Italian joints around the Lanes shopping area, but, with adventurous Indonesian cuisine at Warung Tujuh, great seafood at Due South and Fishy Fishy (part-owned by TV presenter Dermot O’Leary) and posh nosh at Hotel du Vin, there’s really no need to settle for the ordinary.
Things get a little more chi-chi in Hove, west of the city, where you’ll find Marcus Wareing-trained chef Will Murgatroyd making the most of local produce, churning his own butter and curing his own ham at The Meadow. For decidedly up-market, deli-style dining there’s The Real Eating Company or, for an indulgent multi-course menu of modern British fare, make your way over to Graze.
You’ll also find good things to eat and drink in Brighton’s more northerly residential neighbourhoods. Seven Dials has restaurants worth exploring (notably chef Sam Metcalf’s Sam’s of Sevendials), and great cafes, delis and pubs. A sprinkling of hidden gems includes the cosy Chimney House in the Dyke Road area and the smart Preston Park Tavern in Preston Park.
Brighton has avoided the fate of many other British seaside resorts by staying vital and by constantly renewing itself. But it’s never lost touch with its history, so nowhere is more suitable for rounding off a trip than the timelessly elegant Victoria Bar in the historic Grand Hotel, where the barmen wear waistcoats and the pianist plays old Beatles hits. Sink into one of the comfy chairs and have a little postmodern smirk to yourself if you must, but be sure to raise your glass and make a toast to the UK’s finest city by the sea: Brighton rocks.
EAT & DRINK
Bardsley’s 22 Baker Street; 01273 681 256. Serving the best traditional fish and chips in town since 1926. You can ask for your fish to be grilled or poached and the menu also offers sustainable alternatives.
Bar Valentino 7a New Road; 01273 727898. On a warm evening, grab a spot on the balcony overlooking the Pavilion gardens and test the expert bartenders by ordering one of the more obscure creations on the long list (they’ll whip it up without blinking).
Boho Gelato 6 Pool Valley; 01273 727 205. Follow this Italian-style ice cream parlour on Twitter (@bohogelato) to discover the latest offerings in the daily flavours. It could be banoffee, sea-salt caramel, jam doughnut...
Cafe Koba 135 Western Road; 01273 720 059. Grab a coffee during the day, drop by in the evening for some of the best cocktails in town or have dinner in the bistro, where the modern European menu includes sea bream with langoustine, tomato and fennel broth and saffron potatoes.
The Chilli Pickle 17 Jubilee Street; 01273 900 383. Such is the popularity of this modern Indian bistro that it moved from an intimate Lanes spot to a spacious dining room in Myhotel. A buzzy atmosphere, thoughtful service and beautifully spiced dishes, such as the tandoori lamb platter.
Due South 139 Kings Road Arches; 01273 821 218. A restaurant that puts paid to the theory that you can’t dine well on a seaside resort’s seafront.
The Foragers 3 Stirling Place; 01273 733 134. Opened in 2006, this gastropub was ahead of the curve with its philosophy of using wild greens, herbs and spices in dishes such as roast squash, white bean minestrone and salsa verde.
The Ginger Dog 12 College Place; 01273 620 990. Food at this atmospheric gastropub, tucked away in a side street in trendy Kemp Town, is as good as you’d expect from chef and owner Ben McKellar, but it’s a charming spot for an afternoon pint, too.
Jamie’s Italian 11 Black Lion St; 01273 915 480. Rammed from the day it opened, Jamie’s casual eatery has proven a big hit in a city that is already packed with good Italian restaurants.
L’Eglise 196 Church Road; 01273 220 868. Expect classic French bistro dishes such as snails, and moules frites. Owner Jean-Christophe Martin’s enthusiasm for wine is reflected in a well-chosen list and monthly wine dinners.
Market Diner 19–21 Circus Street; 01273 608 273. A Brighton stalwart that’s open all night on weekends. It’s worth adding yourself to the post-club queue for a full-English gut-buster.
The Meadow 64 Western Road; 01273 721 182. Chef Will Murgatroyd takes the ‘local and seasonal’ mantra seriously, even sourcing produce from his parents’ allotment. In the contemporary dining room, enjoy fillet of hake with parsley crust, smoked prawns and fennel vinaigrette.
Metrodeco 38 Upper St James Street; 07878 508 719. At this elegant 1930s-style tea salon you’ll find 18 bespoke tea blends and an enticing menu of breakfasts, lunches and sweet treats.
The Mock Turtle 4 Pool Valley; 01273 327 380. This traditional English tearoom serves homemade cakes and pastries, from top-notch scones to enormous doughnuts and a rather excellent coffee cake.
Pho 12 Black Lion Street; 01273 202 403. Vietnamese cuisine finally arrived in Brighton in the form of this bold, stylish brasserie. Pho (an aromatic rice-noodle soup) is the obvious order and arrives in generous bowlfuls, but the spicy salads are also pretty terrific.
The Real Eating Company 86–87 Western Road, Hove; 01273 221 444. All-day dining in cool, contemporary surroundings. Try the superior bacon butty made with local bacon and sourdough bread and a glass of Sussex-made Hindleap fizz.
Riddle and Finns 12b Meeting House Lane; 01273 323 008. Take a break from antique shopping in the Lanes at this fine oyster and champagne bar, where the extensive menu even includes Keralan fish curry. Buy seafood to cook at home from the wet fish counter.
Sam’s of Brighton 1 Paston Place; 01273 676 222. Relaxed bistro dining in a quiet street just metres from the seafront. Dishes might include chargrilled rib-eye with chips and wild garlic butter.
Terre à Terre 71 East Street; 01273 729 051. One of the best-known vegetarian restaurants in the country, this has won numerous awards for its adventurous cooking. Where else could you order Better Batter and Lemony Yemeni Relish (halloumi soaked in buttermilk and battered, with vodka-spiked preserved plum tomatoes and lemon relish)?
Warung Tujuh 7 Pool Valley; 01273 720 784. This smart, intimate restaurant is named after an Indonesian roadside food stall and serves staples of the region, such as nasi goreng (wok-fried rice with chicken, prawns and vegetables).
Pizzaface 35 St George’s Road; 01273 699 082. Not your average pizza place. Try the Aurelio: smoked pancetta, wild boar, mascarpone, cherry tomatoes and rosemary on homemade dough, cooked in a traditional wood oven.
Pub du Vin 7 Ship Street; 01273 718 588. A stylish but cosy bolt-hole in which to enjoy a tankard of Sussex ale and snack on homemade scotch eggs and pork scratchings. Sit at the beautiful pewter bar, or book a table (it gets packed at peak times) if you want something more substantial.
Audrey’s Chocolates 28 Holland Rd; 01273 735 561. A Brighton institution that’s been trading for more than 60 years. Try a ginger-flavoured bar or sample the truffles spiked with vodka.
Brighton Farm Market 73 North Rd; 01273 696 010. You’ll find only the best Sussex produce at this weekend market, ranging from lamb, game and fish to cakes and chilli oil.
Butlers Wine Cellar 247 Queen’s Park Road; 01273 698 724. One of the best and most interesting ranges of quality wines in the city, hand-picked by owner Henry Butler. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice if you need it.
Cocoa 48 Queens Road; 01273 777412. Raymond Blanc-trained Julien Plumart makes stunning pastries and biscuits at this Parisian-style café and patisserie.
Grocer and Grain 1 Surrey Street; 01273 823 455. Get food shopping as soon as you step off the train in this modern grocer and deli. Pass boxes of flowers on the pavement, and inside you’ll find local and imported foods including pastas, tapenade, amaretti and jarred clams
Infinity Foods 25 North Road; 01273 603563. This workers’ co-operative has been selling veggie food for 40 years. Its house-baked breads are particularly good.
La Cave à Fromage 34–35 Western Road; 01273 725 500. A favourite of Raymond Blanc’s that sells mostly French and British cheeses, and elevates the humble cheese sandwich to an art form.
Real Patisserie 43 Trafalgar Street; 01273 457019. In addition to hand-moulded sourdough loaves baked on site, this slick bakery offers delectable French-style pastries including flaky almond croissants.
Recipease 72–73 Western Road; 01273 311 338. Buy Jamie Oliver-branded goods, ready meals or take a cookery course at this something-for-everyone store.
Steamer Trading 35 Ship Street; 01273 227705. Spread over three floors, this beautifully designed store has everything for the keen cook, from copper pans and professional-quality knives to tea towels and cake tins.
Yum Yum Oriental Market 22–23 Sydney Street; 01273 606777. This grocery is packed with a startling array of reasonably priced fresh, frozen and store-cupboard ingredients. It’s an education just browsing the shelves.
Royal Pavilion Brighton 03000 290 900. Don’t leave town without seeing the Oriental-themed music room in King George IV’s wildly OTT palace. And the kitchens will entrance keen foodies.
Palace Pier Madeira Drive; 01273 609 361. Despite the noisy arcades, stomach-churning rides and deafening karaoke, there is still something oddly romantic and nostalgic about a stroll along the pier.
Brighton Museum Royal Pavilion Gardens; 03000 290 900. The excellent permanent collections of fine and decorative art draw the crowds but the galleries dedicated to Brighton’s history are also well worth a visit.
Myhotel Brighton 17 Jubilee Street; 01273 900300. Centrally located in the Cultural Quarter, Myhotel is suitably quirky – you might end up sharing a feng shui-designed room with an antique carousel horse. The in-house Merkaba bar serves top-notch cocktails.