Ventnor has always had a glut of antique shops and bric-a-brackeries to satisfy the desire for vintage housewares like carnival glass and old lace runners. This recherché resort is also one of the best places on the Island for an award-winning dinner, with more AA rosettes than the rest of the Island's towns can muster between them. When fine dining isn't the order of the day, Matt and Cat also enjoy a stroll along Ventnor's sinuous streets where they are spoilt for choice when seeking out a venue for light lunch or a cosy dinner with chums. A decent cup of coffee is also not that hard to find in Ventnor - with Tramezzini and now Cantina both producing an espresso that could be candidates for the best on the Island.
But despite all this, there's been something missing. Where can you buy household essentials such as fabric bunting and Cath Kidston crockery? And, of more interest to Matt and Cat, where do you go for a nice cup of tea and a cake? There are quite a few places to enjoy a a chef's superlative creation or a continental pastry, but on this particular day M&C were after a wedge of cake and a hot brew. Enter At Sarah's House. This substantial unit has successfully fused a modern gift shop with a clean and stylish tea room. It was the very thing Matt and Cat wanted to see after their cultural afternoon at Ventnor Fringe.
By this year's Bestival correspondent, Ian Winter. Our regular Festival food reviewer Wendy was busy enjoying the event this year; so Ian, who managed to eat an impressively large amount of food, agreed that Matt and Cat could pillage his Twitter and Facebook feeds for the following overview, which long-standing readers will notice differs both in style and subtlety from Wendy's usual offering.
Recalibrating my inners after a weekend dining al fresco on festi-food.
- One almost-cold hamburger from Gourmet Burger Kitchen (they are clueless, avoid).
- One milk-shake mixed with Dime Bar (sorry, ?Daim Bar®?).
- Coffee + cake + wasp-garnish from a lady in a basque decorated with costume jewellery who told me to stop hitting the wasps because then they sting the staff.
- To the Women?s Institute Tea Tent for tea and cake (basque-count: nil).
- A very lovely curry from the farmers' market.
- From same place later, "Ooh, pork pies, £2, my comfort-food of choice" and turns out it?s as big as my hand, awesome treat, which I eat like a total f------ pig alone on a bench like a famished tramp.
- A little tray of chips (Sea Cow) "round the back" of Elton John.
- A freshly griddled waffle with maple syrup and "do you want squirty cream with that?"? "yes I DO!"
- One coffee drunk carefully on a bean-bag and two more on the hoof.
- Two hot crumpets with raspberry jam carefully smeared on from a jar in the dark (£2 but actually a bargain, counted as a whole meal).
- Two cuppas (one free after a drunk walked THROUGH my table spilling my tea, picture the suppressed tears of my inner toddler).
- No pies at all. Boycotting Pie Minister because of their appalling re-branded logo treatment, I have standards. Used to love them, now inspire graphic-design-fuelled contempt (nobody said I have to be reasonable here). Also avoiding Barnaby Sykes as they're a faux-artisan front for plain old Pure Pie and I don't like the taste of cynical marketing in my meat-and-mash. Even when others tell me they're damn tasty.
- Some utterly delicious popcorn from Joe & Sephs (caramel, macchiato & whisky flavour).
- A disappointing visit to the Solace tent, which is run by little loveable Christian bunnies with happy smiles and I suspect a darkly disciplinarian leader, where I usually get FREE CAKE and therefore FIND JEEEESUS; but no cake this year so b-----r The Lord, the W.I. are my new saviours. Solace cake is meagre, and they were not open late as other years.
- An ice-cream from a proper van.
- One bottle of water.
?and no alcohol at all, which will be news to the people who were pointing me out to their friends and pulling their children back as I danced BRILLIANTLY to high-BPM East European folkcore in the Caravanserai.
Don't judge me, just help me get up.
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.