Back in the day the local dining scene offered the choice of starched linen and silver service; sticky Formica tables with aluminium edges; or when going 'foreign' you could eat among exotic plastic grapes and raffia'd wine bottles.
Then Mark King invented Joe Daflo's, and everything changed. Tables lost their cloths, floors lost their carpets, and walls lost their flocked paper. Nude wood was everywhere and Joe's was the coolest place on Union Street; the vertiginous highway recently re-imagined as Ryde's Leisure Strip. The radicalness of the new Joe's is hard to imagine today, when it seems almost normal to be served coffee and cocktails alongside food in a trendy, relaxed atmosphere. But in Ryde at least, Joe's got there first and did it very well. And when other, bigger venues - such as Smithfields - eventually came along and did it better, everyone assumed that Joe's would move on and try something else. But Smithfields disappeared and Joe's prevailed - but it wasn't quite the same; it seemed as though a little bit of the fight had been knocked out of it and that this trendsetting place was just going to slowly fade away. But it didn't. This year, at last, Joe's unveiled a new style, new branding, and a new menu. Some classic Joe's elements remain unchanged: the distinctive continental café-bar interior for one. But for food, Joe's has made a break from the standard Italian-inspired fare, and is now a joint that specialises in burgers. Burgers eh? Sounds like something for Matt and Cat to take a look at.
You don't need Matt and Cat to tell you that the Isle of Wight is intrinsically linked to Queen Victoria; the country's (currently) longest-serving monarch made her home in East Cowes way back in 1848. Although that's of no consequence when compared to the longevity of the Island's other long-standing royal - Ventnor's Royal Hotel - which was receiving guests a full six years before Victoria's coronation. But it's not just its age that marks out this historic place; it shares the rare privilege of being one of only thirty establishments to be listed in every UK Michelin Guide since it was first published in 1911. Pretty impressive. Since Matt and Cat first visited and reviewed the hotel's restaurant way back in 2009, the Royal has been a place they have been back to many times: to dine, to stay, to take family, to relax, to do business. It's a well-organised place; even at busy times the standard of service is formidable. M&C have always appreciated the Royal's capacity to deliver a good and consistent experience throughout.
In early 2013 there was some kind of upheaval among the hotel's personnel; many long-serving members of staff moved on to new things, and new faces joined the team. Most notably for Matt and Cat, chef Alan Staley left after a remarkable seventeen years. Alan's successor and the new hand on the Royal's kitchen tiller was Steve Harris. It was inevitable that sooner or later M&C would take the chance to see what Steve could do - and to see how the Royal was faring with the new crew. Would the famous unflappable Royal service be on display? Was it all change in the kitchen? And most importantly of all, was the Gallybagger soufflé still on the menu?
A while ago, Dining Club founder member and inveterate Ventnor baker Klaus lent Matt and Cat a book by Kerstin Rodgers: Supper Club: Recipes and notes from the underground restaurant.
This substantial tome told the story of how Kerstin went from keen amateur cook to running the country's most famous pop-up restaurant in her own back room. It also gave a lot of practical advice on how to do the same. It seems that the craze for the domestic pop-up is sweeping the nation - well, London anyway. The book was a good read, and stimulated much thought about the meaning of 'a restaurant' and how it can be presented - but Matt and Cat concluded they'd probably need to go to the mainland if ever they wanted to experience this kind of thing. It's taken a few years but it turns out that, like electricity, equal pay for women and a piano recital by Sir Elton John, all good things will eventually rock up on the Island if you wait long enough.
As well as being an artist and designer, Bembridge's Holly Maslen has another string to her bow - she has opened a pop-up restaurant. As an intriguing variation to the dining-room or kitchen that domestic pop-ups seem to favour, Holly has created The Dome, a large tent set up in her back garden, where diners can relax in an opulent yurt-style environment whilst Holly works away in the nearby kitchen. Word of Holly and her set three-course French menu had reached Matt and Cat, so they gathered a few fellow foodies and set off to see whether Bembridge's new reputation as a hotbed of eating-out innovation would be maintained.
It seems that the hottest dinner ticket in Shanklin is Fine Nammet. Again and again, Matt and Cat have pressed their noses optimistically at the new restaurant's windows, only to see the place packed with diners who'd had the foresight to book a table.
They'll have success there one day, but for the moment Fine Nammet seems to be managing perfectly well without the Island's "notoriously hard-to-please" reviewers, as for a third time they were turned away unreserved and empty-headed. Fortunately Shanklin is a town with other eateries and, as Matt and Cat moved away from the steamy windows of Nammet and headed up the hill, they knew that they would encounter several great restaurants in the Old Village. With maybe the Black Cat, Pendletons or the Village Inn in their collective minds' eye they moseyed up to the traffic lights.
At the top of the town, just before the descent into the Old Village, is the appropriately monickered Paramount Café. Matt and Cat casually studied the menu outside and it didn't take years of eating out experience to see that food seemed remarkably good value. A glance inside caught locals tucking into what looked like satisfactory meals. So, it was swerve o'clock for M&C; intending to go to a restaurant, they were equally delighted at having found a café that stayed open for dinner.
Everyone says that food is expensive in Cowes Week, don't they? But are they right?
This is the third year that Matt and Cat have surveyed prices of food at over 40 outlets and venues in Cowes, and once again it seems as though popular wisdom is wrong - food is actually cheaper this year than it was in Cowes Week 2012.
So our annual infographic is back with this year's price results in more detail.
Who sells the cheapest coffee? And who sells the dearest? See the full infographic here.
It might be the keener competition amongst venues, or the effects of the credit crunch, but whatever the reason the averages have come down again for most of the items surveyed - just as they did the previous year.
The most impressive drop is in the average price of a burger - from £7.00 in 2011, it dropped 45p to £6.55 in 2012 and in this year the trend continued with a massive 94p drop to only £5.61. A portion of chips would set you back £2.34 in 2011, and following a small fall in 2012 the price has dropped again to an average of only £2.05. And although a fish and chips meal would have cost an average of £8.66 in 2012, this year it was more than £1.50 less at only £7.03. But it's not all good news - the crews' favourite, all-day breakfast - the only food item that has actually gone up in price - has risen from £6.14 to an average of £6.70. And coffee continues its price rise, up to an average of £1.88.
These results might not always mean better value - for example, some venues might be choosing to offer smaller meals or cheaper ingredients, but they demonstrate that the typical price of eating out in Cowes Week is actually still going down.
Note: not all venues in Cowes were surveyed, and food and drink was not sampled so the prices will refer to quite different offers. This year Gurnard was not surveyed, and some temporary stalls in Cowes Yacht Haven were included. Prices were recorded on 3 August 2013 and may change.