Margate’s inhabitants may baulk at gentrification but there’s no doubt the seaside town is having a renaissance. Despite its undeniable food and drink ascendancy, there’s still a tenacious desire to ‘keep it real’: Sargasso, a sublime outpost of Brawn, still retains its ramshackle vibe, new-ish bar Margate Off Licence feels like it’s been there forever and lovely Sète is only quietly making its presence known on rough-round-the-edges Northdown Road.
Adding to this gradual upward shift, The Fort Road Hotel re-opened in late 2022 following a massive renovation. Formerly a derelict boarding house opposite the Turner Contemporary this has been given a new lease of life thanks to co-founder of Frieze magazine and fairs, Matthew Slotover, developer Gabriel Chipperﬁeld and local artist Tom Gidley. This revamped bolthole has a basement cocktail bar (serving serviceable Negronis amongst other drinks), 14 rooms and a roof terrace, with art curated by Gidley throughout.
At Fort Road though the 35-cover restaurant is right at the heart of the hotel; in fact there’s no avoiding it as it’s also the hotel’s reception. Come for a weekend lunch and front of house staff may deal with the carousel of guests checking in and out, whilst taking your food order and navigating a nervous whippet on the floor. The soothing sounds of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles calm down the frantic commotion.
Indeed, there’s no Basil Fawlty ineptitude to worry about here. On this visit, the staff seemed to take the necessary multi-tasking in their stride; unsurprising really as manager Tom Fogg has worked in some of Mayfair’s best-known restaurants (as well as a life coach and English teacher). His approach to service is self-assured: he flatteringly uses first name terms and always asks if you’re being looked after (a bit of Corbin and King experience doesn’t harm anyone does it?). He may take a few liberties with the classics, such as making a Negroni Sbagliato with unorthodox Cava, but it is served with a flourish, the Cava being generously poured on top of the Campari and Cocchi tableside, and without a jigger in sight.
The menu is like a trip round the Garden of England via the Mediterranean
If there’s any kind of pervasive theme here it’s an ability to appear effortless, of being unshackled from strictures – not in a ‘Back Off Brussels’ anti-regulation way, but a relaxed approach to hospitality that throws a bit of caution to the Thanet wind and cleverly masks the huge amount of thought that’s gone into it. If this restaurant was an item of clothing it would be the kind of unstructured jacket favoured by Monty Don or a middle-aged humanities professor; if it was music, perhaps a Miles Davis riff. This seems to be reflected in the clientele too, being mostly bohemians who keep their scarves on indoors, staycationers and a smattering of locals – all, in Billy Connolly’s words, “windswept and interesting.”
On the pass, chef Daisy Cecil (ex-The River Café) and consultant Gioconda Scott have devised a menu that is like a trip round the Garden of England via the Mediterranean, all inspired by iconic female food writers. The restaurant also hosts the occasional pop-up with guest chefs.
Starting with a £5.50 glass of Chin Chin (borrowing Noble Rot’s signature Vinho Verde aperitif), the cider-braised Merguez, seaweed crisps and warm sourdough bread with cowslip butter made for a delightfully simple opener.
Then, smoked trout rillettes: a masterclass in rustic loveliness, spooned atop crunchy toast, all appropriately seasoned with the roe providing mini supernovas of salinity. Meanwhile, the fried buttermilk chicken with pickles proved to be extremely popular on the neighbouring tables (and pleasingly seems to be a staple on the menu).
From a limited trio of mains (merely a vegetarian option, a catch of the day and a pasta dish) orecchiette with Romney lamb ragu came, like all great dishes should, as 50 shades of beige: most probably made with white wine rather than red, the slow-cooked lamb and the umami tang of the shaved parmesan danced in harmony, whilst the onion of the soffritto was just north of al dente. Kitchen pedants may argue that it needed to stew in its own juices for longer but as anyone across the road at the Turner would tell you, art is never finished, only abandoned.
The chocolate mousse’s looks wouldn’t stop traffic… but it tasted glorious
And to close, none of the desserts (other than cheese) necessitated teeth – perhaps disappointing for those looking for some intricate pastry work but a relief for the older Kent demographic. On this occasion there was a rhubarb sorbet and a stout ice cream but who in their right mind can really resist chocolate mousse? As is de rigueur in bistros across the land, this came as a Ronseal splodge, as if a French pâtissier had thought about shaping a quenelle but went on strike half-way. Its looks wouldn’t stop traffic: it could’ve been astronaut food, perhaps a sample of Glastonbury mud, or (with the protruding raspberries) a hideous deep sea creature not yet known to science. Unappealing to the eye perhaps, mono-textural for sure, but it tasted glorious.
Yes, Fort Road might be, consciously or unconsciously, pitched at Londoners making a weekend of it, maybe to the chagrin of locals, but perhaps there’s a mutual benefit here. As trips abroad become more expensive there’s a seaside escape much closer to home, whilst the locals are probably secretly glad they have this little gem on their doorstep. It’s just an utterly joyous place where you’ll want to linger for hours – perhaps even stay over too.
The Fort Road Hotel
18 Fort Road
by J A Smith