Delia Fitt’s wonderful Wheelers in Whitstable is one of the great places to eat oysters, plus a whole host of other seafood, painstakingly sourced direct from local fishermen and brilliantly cooked by chef Mark Stubbs, says Rachel Walker.
“We have no room for anything!” says Delia Fitt, exasperated. I get the feeling that this isn’t the first time she’s started a story like this. “Only today, George had baked 12 crab tarts. They were balancing above the fridge and I knocked them onto the floor,” she shrieks. “I suppose that the greedy seagulls will enjoy them. In fact, I’ll save them for my rooks. My rooks are rather gorgeous.”
Delia, owner of the wonderful Wheelers Oyster Bar, has lived in Whitstable all her life, and she’s still besotted. She talks about the hard coastal light that dances across the water, and reminds me that Turner and Dickens were drawn here for inspiration. “It used to be a scruffy little place,” she says, with great affection. “But it’s smartened itself up a bit,” she adds, with perhaps a hint of regret.
You can see why Delia struggles for space: this isn’t a normal-sized restaurant. There’s no expansive prep area in the kitchen, and not much room to manoeuvre out front either. It’s tiny. But like her rooks – a characteristically surreal Delia touch – it’s rather gorgeous. Though it looks squeezed into the High Street, it stands out a mile with its salmon-pink paint job and baby blue piping. In the front is a neat seafood bar, and at the back is the “Oyster Parlour”, which is often described as “like walking into your great grandmother’s front room”: cluttered and fussy and homely.
It’s the oldest restaurant in town, founded in 1856 by an entrepreneurial dredger who went by the name of Richard “Leggy” Wheeler. Another entrepreneur called Bernard Walsh packaged it up and rolled it out across London, creating an oyster bar chain that first flourished and then folded – while the original stood strong. Now the waiting list can be months long, and diners travel from all over the world to visit. If you can get in, listen to the other diners on the tables squeezed in next to you and you’ll probably hear Japanese or an American twang mixing in with the voices of the locals and DFLs (Down From London) who flock here.
But for all the eccentricities and the landmark status, it’s the food that’s the real draw, thanks to chef Mark Stubbs’ wizardry in the kitchen and the exceptional ingredients he works with, often sourced locally. Mark has cooked here for a dozen years or more, and gets his seafood direct from local fishermen (no middlemen), including lobsters, crabs, sea bass, Rye Bay scallops, as well as Whitstable oysters, of course, and the cockles and whelks you can see moving around by the truckload down at the harbor.
Everything is made from scratch, from the bread to the ice cream, while the salad, herbs and fruit comes from their own organic garden. They even have their own smokehouse, turning out hot- and cold-smoked salmon, mackerel, prawns and mussels.
Signature dishes include lasagna of whole Kentish lobster, the richest crab cakes you’ve ever tasted (those lucky rooks) and all kinds of oysters: fried in a Guinness batter; with a bloody Mary granite, cucumber and micro celery; or Japanese style with soy, mirin and pickled ginger. Other recent menu standouts include pan-fried sea trout, courgette flower and crab tempura with a kohlrabi, dill and lemon salad; and monkfish roasted with a mint coriander and cardamon crust with pea puree, feta and summer vegetable salad, crispy parmentier potatoes and wasabi, cucumber and yoghurt dressing. All enticing, imaginative and substantial in equal measure: nobody leaves Wheelers hungry, that’s for sure.
Delia relishes the mixed crowd her restaurant attracts. “You never know who you’re going to meet,” she says, adding that it was ever thus, reeling off a list of actors who used to holiday down here, from Henry Irving to Peter Cushing. Yet both she and the restaurant are resolutely local at heart. “Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes to walk from one end of the street to the other, because I keep bumping into people I know,” she says. After all, her family has lived in Whitstable for generations and her parents ran the restaurant before her. She even remembers meeting a Mrs Wheeler as a child, she says, “but I don’t remember much else. We always say in Whitstable that we’re all inter-related anyway.”
Her training started young. At the age of 12, she was put in charge of the family fish stand on Long Beach during the school holidays. “I got a lot out of it,” she says, rubbishing the idea that 12 might be a little young to start work. “I woke up early every morning and got my fish. And then my parents expected me to run the stall efficiently – and turn a profit by the end of the day.”
Over the years, Delia has become something of an authority on oysters. She explains how rocks are available all year round, but that the natives aren’t available from May until August because they’re spawning and legally protected. Moreover, they’re more temperamental. “Natives are strange because they’re wild, and they’re aristocratic. They tend to be a bit sensitive. One minute they flourish, and then they go off in a huff.”
While Whitstable is inundated with oyster seekers for the festival in August, the best time to try them is November, she says, when they are at their prime. “The water temperature has gone down, there’s plenty of feed in for them, and nothing has been killed by frost. After Christmas, the oysters get a bit thin, because the frost has killed a lot of the food in the water.”
Luckily, Mark Stubbs’ menu means that there’s plenty to tempt diners when oysters are a bit milky or thin on the ground. “The boys produce amazing food, and they work so hard but there’s just not enough space,” says Delia, bringing us back to where we came in. As our conversation comes to an end, I ask Delia for her email address so that I can send her a link to this piece and she suggests I send it to a chef’s phone. Why’s that? I ask without thinking. “Because we don’t have room for a computer!” she shrieks.
Wheelers Oyster Bar, 8 High Street, Whitstable, Kent CT5 1BQ; tel: 01227 273311; web: www.wheelersoysterbar.com. Mark Stubbs also runs the Shoreline School of Cookery, a private cookery school run on a Wednesday in the kitchens of Wheelers. To find out more about Wheelers, it’s history and recipes, read The Oyster Seekers by Mandy Bruce.