You don’t need Matt and Cat to tell you, but they will anyway – the Isle of Wight is a really great place.
They love living here and particularly enjoy the varied scenery and disparate local cultures. From the chalky downs and county set to the twiddly coastline with its yachties there’s something for everyone – unless you like miles of “boring landscape”, in which case you can go to Hull.
One of the pleasures of eating out for a hobby on the Island is that whatever mood you are in, and whatever location you fancy, there’ll be an eatery that ticks those particular boxes. Whether or not it’s actually a good place to eat can depend on a host of factors, some of which may have naff all to do with the restaurant itself. Such as if, like Cat, you’d unexpectedly had a plate of irresistible food and then gone out to dinner with a full stomach. Noob mistake.
In a month that had seen them eat in a variety of seaside places: indulging at one of the Island’s poshest venues; enjoying a sunset dinner with pals and nibbling seafood at the Old Gaffers, Matt and Cat thought they’d round it all off with a revisit to the Baywatch on the Beach. First reviewed in 2006, this third trip was prompted by a succession of increasingly negative comments from visitors to the venue who had chosen to express their disappointment on this website. With so many seemingly disgruntled customers Matt and Cat decided to give the place another go.
You lot have probably heard enough of Matt and Cat’s hypothesis of diminishing returns when it comes to seaside eateries. Even so, you can have it again. In many cases it seems that a venue’s nearness to the coast is proportionate to the quality of its food and service, i.e. the nearer the sea, the more lacklustre the eatery. This is not a theory that bears much scrutiny: undoubtedly some of the Island’s finest restaurants are within spraying distance of the briny stuff. But others seem to take the availability of a view to mean that standards can slip with impunity. Which class would the Baywatch fall into?
Baywatch on the Beach’s location cannot be faulted, with its proximity to a pretty beach, locally rare sand-dune habitat and a handy car park. The view across the mouth of Bembridge Harbour provides a great point of interest with St Helens Fort looming in the channel, plus traversing boats and sea birds. However, the restaurant itself is no rustic fisherman’s shack or red-bricked Edwardian villa, like those on the approach. Described rather fancifully by The Telegraph as “grey-green New England-style cabin”, the building is more of a stout but utilitarian beach café than the exclusive formal dinner venue it aspires to be in the evenings. Nonetheless, the practical double-glazed picture windows are probably preferable to rattly old sashes in such an exposed location.
Visitors to the venue during the day will have a café-type experience, as the Baywatch sells light meals and ice cream. Even so, despite having to collect their cutlery and condiments, the counter service day-trippers can still pay nearly twenty quid for a single dish (seared fillet steak).
At night the venue reverts to table service, although on the evening that Matt and Cat stepped over the threshold they stood ungreeted for a while before choosing to wander randomly among the tables. It seemed that a massive party was expected, as the vast majority of the tables were reserved, leaving only a small double between the door and the freezers. No matter, they took it, and sat for a while, gawping at the view and wondering if the counter service was still in operation.
Eventually, having been prompted by someone’s stage whisper, a boy came over and asked M&C if they wanted menus. Having passed over the laminates and listed all the seafood items that were not available – despite being in sight of a returning fishing boat – he disappeared, shortly replaced by a young girl who took their drinks order. After she’d gone, her place at Matt and Cat’s side was filled by a man who also offered to take their drinks order. This pattern of neglect then over-compensation was however, not repeated throughout the meal, or at least the over-compensation bit wasn’t – Matt and Cat were mostly left alone.
Spaghetti Bolognese £11.95
Gourmet burger £13.95
Sol beer £3.50
Lime cordial £1
Cat, still pretty full from some unexpected food she’d eaten earlier elsewhere, scoured the menu for something cheap as she knew she wouldn’t eat much of it. Even the salads started at prices just shy of £14 so, at £11.95 it would have been a toss-up between moules or Bolognese. Having already been told the moules were not available the choice was made for her, Baywatch Bolognese it was. Matt stuck with his default choice of burger. The Baywatch Special Gourmet Burger promised all of the trimmings and was described thus: “Our king-sized Aberdeen Angus gourmet burgers are non-greasy with that rich ‘true beef’ taste. Served in a luxury seeded sourdough bun with mozzarella cheese, gherkin, spicy tomato and onion chutney, cos lettuce, crunchy fried onion, beef tomato and bacon – all accompanied by fries on the side – WOW!!” Some description; would the food itself be two exclamation mark-worthy?
The girl buzzed around their table bringing drinks, then – in a surprisingly short space of time – dinner. Cat’s generous pile of Bolognese was served on linguini and under a scattering of Parmesan shavings. Some sprinkled chopped parsley garnished the dish and provided a nice contrasting colour. Bolognese is usually a safe bet; there’s not much really that can go wrong with such an easy-cook classic. Cat was impressed with the finely minced beef and thought that the linguini was a good alternative to spaghetti. However, the Bolognese sauce itself was a bit bland and not cooked long enough to really melt into a smooth, rich medium. Cat would have preferred sweeter, less acid tomatoes and a perhaps more garlic. She pushed it around in a valiant attempt to look like she’d made a good effort but her heart wasn’t in it.
Matt’s burger looked pretty impressive. The sourdough bun bore its luxury seeds proudly, and the dish certainly had all the ingredients listed, in good supply. This was, perhaps, the kind of dish that he’d been hoping for when he ordered a Coast Stilton Burger in Cowes recently, and had been disappointed. On digging in, he found the dish adequate, but undistinguished. The bun, under its jolly seeds, was just a bun. The meat was average, but the salad and gherkins were crispy and added a good bite to the meal which would otherwise have risked mediocrity.
As Matt polished off the remnants of Cat’s discarded Bolognese – which he, too, thought could have been tastier – the diners were aware of the nearby tables being cleared of their dinner settings. So the expected vast party hadn’t shown up; or maybe, they mused, the set tables had all had ‘reserved’ labels on them for some other unfathomable reason, and your reviewers had sat in the corner all evening when they could have been on a comfortable table further in. Matt and Cat got the vague impression of being encouraged to eat up. Once they had, and made it clear that they were too full for pudding, they were again left alone. No offer of coffee, no bringing of the bill, no ‘did you enjoy your dinner?’ chitchat. Nothing. After a while of being the only ones left in the restaurant and feeling a bit awkward with the tidying up going on around them, they gave up waiting for the bill and Matt went to the counter to pay. On finding out that he was not a holiday-maker, the chap behind the bar became unexpectedly garrulous and chatted to Matt amiably. But it was all a bit too late – the time for friendly interaction should have been when Matt and Cat stepped through the door.
The Baywatch on the Beach is a dichotomous place; its rather feeble restaurant personality is overwhelmed by its far more lively casual beach café persona. The staffing reflects this incongruity. M&C congratulate enterprising children who supplement their pocket money by squirting ice cream into waffle cones for refreshment-needy beach citizens, or serve them lunch. But frankly, at the prices this place charges, and at that time of night on a schoolday M&C expect to be served dinner and alcohol by adults. Nor do they wish to have a dinner looking at a pile of folded beach umbrellas stashed up against a chest freezer, or have the staff so obviously waiting to leave. The food wasn’t bad but the whole experience lacked warmth, and the venue, despite its superb location and well-appointed interior felt unatmospheric. It’s possible that for lunch or snacks the Baywatch is a great spot – albeit not a cheap one. However, there are plenty of other beach-side venues that offer truly enjoyable, relaxing dining at comparable, or better, prices.