Anyone who has been to Ventnor recently will have been impressed with how the town has picked itself out of economic malaise. Where once were junk shops and empty windows, now there are coffee bars, emporia and restaurants. And even though 2012’s Arts Festival-goers heard a particularly impassioned discourse about Tesco's arrival in Ventnor from Nearly Naked Chef Hardeep Singh Kholi, the ruinous old Ventnor International stores has nonetheless been replaced by a shiny new Tesco Express.
So Ventnor is definitely open for business. Even the troubled Winter Gardens has flung open its doors again. In fact, if you want to relocate your cup-cakery, camp coffee parlour or pop-up burger joint to the town you’d be hard-pressed to find room.
In an attempt to spread the love beyond the town centre and the delightful esplanade, the culinary team behind the popular Ventnor High Street venue Tramezzini has popped up in the Wellington Hotel. After making a name for themselves with their classy café with its fabulous Italian-inspired lunches, they have ventured into riskier but potentially more prestigious territory. Can the successful formula be transposed to a hotel environment?
Ah bless the Isle of Wight, so steadfastly stuck in the middle ages. Or at least the middle of the twentieth century, if you believe the laziest of stereotypes. No, you don’t need a passport. Yes, there is a Marks and Sparks. Praise the Lord, there’s even a travelator. The county town Newport is quite the commercial hub these days, doncha know.
OK, Newport isn't New York but, as an administrative centre and flagship town it can hold its head up high. Coppins Bridge in rush hour may not be exactly Piccadilly Circus, the double decker buses are green and not red, and the snaking river is a trickle compared to the Thames but hey, it’s as urban as we’ve got. Briefly nicknamed Westminster-by-Sea is the office block County Hall, and it is down this end of town you’ll find the Urban Diner.
The sun has got its hat on, hip hip hip hooray! Not every day, admittedly, but today was The Day. And, as tradition dictates, everyone has to 'make the most of it'. Which, for you mainland readers, translates as an hour sat dehydrating as you rage in your car in the traffic jam from hell. Otherwise anyone within spitting distance of the beach is required to bare some flesh within sight of the sea.
Being good citizens, Matt and Cat made their way to Sandown once the mercury hit the twenties. Now then, Matt and Cat know what you're thinking... Sandown, wasn't that once described as the Beirut of the Island? Perhaps, by someone who'd clearly never been to Lebanon's "centre for commerce, fashion, and media". Yes, Sandown has had its detractors and some parts of the town might benefit from a bit of a spruce-up. But despite years of underinvestment, the beach is still marvellous, the pier intact (yes, M&C are pointing the finger at you Ventnor, Shanklin and Seaview) and when the sun is out The Bay is blooming spectacular!
Once you've had the thrill of pouring a quid's-worth of coppers into the tuppenny falls on Sandown Pier, head southwards, being sure to enjoy the historic ruins of Zanies. At the end of the road you'll be at Devonia slipway and the wonderfully-positioned Beach Shack. Unlike some of the businesses in the seaside town, this small cafe has undergone a significant investment and is now twice the size of its previous incarnation, and without compromising its enviable sea views. Have the owners kept up their high food standards now that they can cater for even more hungry beach-going masses?
2014 will go down in history as the year the Isle of Wight was served its last bender in a bun. Local businessman and franchisee Wayne Whittle removed the final Wimpy sign at his beachside burger bar, and rebranded the venue The Big Kahuna. And thus all things pass. Or do they?
The burger is considered a food staple (just ask any teenage boy), or an occasional treat, or even a thing most reviled - thanks to John Selwyn Gummer and latterly the horsemeat scandal. Now, a seemingly-endless series of such scares has led to a certain cynicism, and if you read one particular British newspaper any foodstuff could be the next enemy within. But these days consumers have become a bit more savvy about the origins of their meat, and beef of good quality can once more take its rightful place on our menus. There is an argument to be made about the sustainability of local food versus mass-production, but that is a drum we’ll leave others to bang.
Thus the humble burger, once the sole preserve of the fast food generation, has gotten all grown up: from sliders in swanky Shoreditch sham-shabby pop-ups to the Isle of Wight. Once again the burger is king. Although by the time Matt and Cat write this the metropolitans will have moved on from trendy tiny burgers to fish finger butties, macaroni cheese or crispy pancakes (two of these Saturday tea time standards have already been re-imagined by the foodniks). It’s possible that the penny-farthing-riding beardies will one day wake up and smell the coffee, then instead of having their brew created by a faux-chemist using a titchy bunsen burner, they’ll settle for a spoon of instant in a chipped mug. Or blown up their backsides with a pair of goatskin bellows. Or something else. It's anyone's guess, really.
As your grandmother will tell you, people have been selling nosh from barrows since before the war.
In fact, since before the war before that, and the war before that. So all those bearded hipsters who try to tell you that the street food revolution started with some sockless chancer flogging overpriced organic allotment-grown mange-tout, splashed with ewe’s butter from the artisan-crafted wicker basket of an electric bicycle are talking out of their ironic pork-pie hats.
The Isle of Wight doesn't have a vast range of street food - the reliable Jolly Fryer is perhaps the most well known and certainly the longest-standing mobile food wagon. Matt and Cat haven't got much else to report on the local street-food front, apart from a nice lunch in Tansy's Pantry bus and the occasional ice cream from Plaza Ices' van or the venerable Minghella wagon on Brading Down.
However, this is one trend that is likely to continue and grow as it has an obvious appeal, not least to the purveyors. Once you have made your capital investment - bought a vehicle, fitted it out and got the appropriate permissions - then you are free from the constraints of regular eateries. The world is your lobster. You could crank up your mobile kitchen and head off to festivals around the world or, maybe travel along the Island’s scenic Military Road eastwards to Ventnor and stake your claim to a pitch with a view across the town’s picturesque bay.