Unless it’s in the resort of Ryde, Sandown or Shanklin, any beach on the Isle of Wight usually earns the title of Locals’ Secret Location. This sobriquet is bandied around so often that one could assume that the majority of the Island’s coastline is a hidden gem. Which, to be honest, it probably is.
Matt and Cat have read national reviews of the “locals’ secret” Boathouse restaurant at Steephill Cove, they’ve eaten at The Priory Bay Hotel, with its secret private beach, and even well-publicised Barefoot on the Beach requires the surefootedness of a native guide as it’s certainly tricky to find of an evening.
And so to locals’ secret location Bembridge Forelands. Last century, this wonderful place was the backdrop to childhood family trips on endless hot summer days for Matt and so many others. After filling his metal pail with rockpool treasures, he and his sandy-fingered siblings ate ice lollies bought from the beachside kiosk. Fast forward forty years and the pleasures of Bembridge Ledges remain as delightfully unsophisticated. In order to get the true locals’ off-season experience Matt and Cat made it their mission to spend a bracing November morning playing along the beautiful beach collecting fossils and a progress-inhibiting amount of clay on their wellies, before seeking lunch at the beach kiosk’s successor: the Beach Hut.
Matt and Cat have reflected before on the fact that Bembridge is rapidly hauling itself up by its culinary bootstraps. The modest but reliable Fox’s was for many years Bembridge’s best bet; seeing off various contenders, some good, some less so. Then all of a sudden in 2011 Lockslane turned up the heat, serving sophisticated bistro fare, and the Old Village Inn was transformed into a quality steak house. Whatever next?
Well, this. The former Long Ledge Café, a rudimentary hut perched on the edge of the hidden Forelands beach at Bembridge, is the latest place for a foodie makeover. The building is fundamentally the same; a modest shed sat at the rear of a sunny east-facing terrace. However, with a lick of fashionable New England colour and a string of on-trend polka-dot bunting, it has been transformed into a pretty self-styled ‘gastro café’. The opening of the revived venue was well-heralded by plenty of publicity, helped along by the fact that co-proprietor Emma Guy was winner of the 2011 Isle of Wight Masterchef award.
Matt and Cat made the best job they could of de-clagging their wellies of the area’s distinctive blue slipper clay and, with some relief, left the blustery beach for the peace and warmth of the café. The first thing Matt and Cat noticed about the Beach Hut was that it was small – tiny, in fact. They were told that there was room for sixty diners on the terrace but with only three little tables inside, seats within the cosy hut were at a premium. Two were already taken with a birthday party, and a hardier customer (who was defiantly wearing shorts) was braving the elements on the grassy platform outside with his black labrador.
Welcomed warmly, the reviewers sat down to peruse the Beach Hut menu, finding it to be traditional seaside fare with gastro aspirations. Yes, there were crab sandwiches, but these were “posh” and made, of course, with local crustacea. Words like ramekin, tapanade and sunblaze were scattered throughout the menu – elevating it from the sandy sandwiches of Matt’s youth to a dining adventure. And before you ask, the prices weren’t similarly elevated; a light lunch of homemade mackerel and brown bread triangles was a mere four quid.
It was hard to tell if the Beach Hut offered counter or table service. In fact, it was irrelevant: the venue was so intimate that Matt and Cat were able to give their order to the chap behind the counter while seated – so it was an easy combination of both. Matt was taken by the two course lunch and Cat put her hand up for crab and smoked salmon salad. Both were persuaded to try the winter warmer, a warm fruit punch in the style of mulled wine but without the alcohol. The café has no drinks licence so if you want something stronger you are invited to bring your own; M&C couldn’t help but notice that the birthday at the adjacent table was being celebrated with a bottle of white wine. The spiced drinks were delivered to their table along with the ubiquitous galvanised pail of napkin-sheathed cutlery. Cat thought a painted seaside bucket might be slightly more in-keeping with the Beach Hut’s theme but, a quick bit of research revealed that even a modest vintage pail like this might set you back £45.
As Matt set to on his delightful crab saladette starter, Cat sipped at her spicy brew and rested her elbow on an adjacent shelf. It brought back childhood memories of eating in a caravan, and the splendid views across the unspoilt Whitecliff Bay added to the holiday feel.
The food was well-presented, and the high aspirations of the Beach Hut’s kitchen clearly showed. Matt’s starter was a tasty turret of crab meat, corralled by a ring of mixed salad and spots of lemon crème fraîche, all accompanied by a bucket of warmed bread. The fresh, tasty dish would not have been out of place at a fine hotel, and was perfect for a lunchtime.
Cat squinted through the double-glazing at the view of Culver headland in the distance. In the foreground she could see lettuce flapping vigorously as the chap in shorts gamely took a bite out of his posh sarnie. His dog was nowhere to be seen, presumably it was sheltering under his chair perhaps basking in the knowledge that the Beach Hut has won an award as a dog-friendly venue. Still, inside the café, M&C were snug. While waiting for their main courses they browsed some local glossies, conveniently splayed open to reveal promotional pieces about the venue. They perused an article which hinted at Emma’s prize-winning secret marinated steak and mushroom sauce recipe. In another magazine, Matt and Cat were agog to read that “up to eight people at a table” can enjoy the Beach Hut’s Sunday roast. There was barely room for four-and-twenty blackbirds, let alone two dozen people. Perhaps that was supposed to read ‘up to eight people at a time’.
Further cutlery arrived along with the main event. The smoked salmon and Isle of Wight crab seafood special had a Cat-pleasingly spectacular amount of fish on it and a decent mixed dressed salad. As with Matt’s starter, the crab had been shaped into a tidy cylinder and there was plenty of fresh wedged lemon to squeeze over it all. The star of the show was the generous helping of salmon, easily giving Cat a week’s dose of Omega 3. Using her warmed roll to mop up the last of the crème fraîche, she thought it was the perfect lunch for a seaside venue.
2-course lunch £10.00
Smoked salmon and crab £9.50
Hot fruit punch 2 @ £1.20
Matt had the tart of the day which had promised to be mushroom and tarragon but, as the last one was given to the birthday party, Matt had to console himself with the next available tart – roast vegetable, tomato pesto and goats cheese. It was a worthy substitute, and came hot from the oven. The crispy puff-pastry base supported a tasty mass of cheese and vegetables, and the whole thing was accompanied by the Beach Hut’s trademark salad.
As they finally settled their bill (with cash – no credit cards are accepted), Matt and Cat were slightly reluctant to leave. The Beach Hut is not a conventional restaurant nor is it in a conventional location. This adds to its attraction, but it’s as well to know what to expect. If you’re driving, there’s a free but unmade car park that will be jammed in summer and sometimes flooded in winter. Access to the café is down some uneven steps and the nearest toilet is some way away. Making a living year-round from this idiosyncratic and bijou venue, which although at the height of the season can cater for multitudes, is an intrepid enterprise. The proprietors of the café must be applauded for their enthusiasm and creativity in the restricted space. Having this beachside venue open in the summer must be a delight, albeit a frantic one at times. In the winter it is clearly a more considered labour of love which reveals itself in the charming service, attention to detail and delicious food. The Beach Hut is a splendid and enjoyably quirky addition to Bembridge’s range of quality eating-places. Matt and Cat appreciated the unexpected pleasure of discovering it.
Beach Hut, Bembridge
- Awesome sea views
- Right on one of the best wild beaches on the Island
- Great seafood
- Hard to find if you don't know the Island
- Parking and access a little challenging
- Sometimes closed in winter and in very bad weather
- Very limited indoor space