“No-one passes through,” declares the fisherman propping up the bar, before adding, “people only come to Deal for a purpose.”
He’s right. Or at least he was – until recently. Deal’s liberal atmosphere and unique culture have thrived from being precisely the place that no-one happens upon, situated as it is between Dover and Ramsgate.
Historically, however, it was the preferred landing spot for every potential invader from Julius Caesar, who arrived in 55BC (check out the memorial on the promenade towards Walmer) to Napoleon (no, he didn’t quite make it).
And it’s this combination of inaccessibility and vulnerability that has allowed Deal to live by its own rules.
Its significance in the sixteenth century as the busiest port in England resulted in the building of three castles including Walmer, the most spectacular, but by the 18th Century, a thriving smuggling trade meant the town had gained a lawless reputation: diarist Samuel Pepys called Deal “pitiful”, whilst the author Daniel Defoe talked of its “barbarous hated name”.
So why is it now bustling with delis, restaurants, great pubs, galleries, vintage and interior shops? The clue lies in the famous Georgian conservation area of fisherman’s cottages just behind the seafront.
In the sixties, the council nearly demolished a sizeable portion, but gradually the crumbling dwellings were bought up (often by “theatrical London types”, according to local estate agents Bright & Bright) and refurbished – to the point where a stroll around this now highly picturesque quarter is the most enjoyable way to spend an hour upon arrival (see section below). So DFLs – in case you didn’t realise – are actually nothing new round these parts.
And the many blue plaques are testament to the town’s bohemian history – an author here, a painter there – especially that belonging to Carry On actor Charles Hawtrey, who had a penchant for sailors, booze and setting fire to his bed, often all at the same time.
Deal’s busy past and bright future seems to converge on its pier, the only one of its kind to have been built in the UK since the end of the last war. The first, erected in 1838, was replaced by an iron structure in 1864, which in turn was damaged in WW2 by a torpedoed Dutch ship.
The present pier, constructed from concrete-clad steel, was opened in 1957 by Prince Phillip and restored in 2008 as state-of-the-art RIBA-award winning glass café. It’s thankfully being restored to original splendour. And the new cafe, Deal Pier Kitchen, is a destination in itself (see eating guide below).
The piazza on the seafront was also regenerated a few years back, facilitating alfresco drinking and dining. There are always live bands and shows on Sundays and bank holidays here – it’s where the town comes together, in fact.
Try these weekend pursuits
An old town mooch
Wander round the rarefied streets of the conservation area centred around Middle Street, making sure you don’t miss the winding Brewer Street, and charming Portobello Court, before heading to the old high street for an intriguing selection of vintage and lifestyle shops.
Try the recently expanded Hoxton Store (142 High St) for interiors, the very rummageable two-floor Petit Brocante (154 High St) and cavernous Mileage (156 High St, pictured), with its maze of rooms, accompanying tea shop and well-thumbed piles of World Of Interiors magazines. Also recommended is the new doggy lifestyle store Barkened (132 high St) and the calm cool spaces of the newly relocated Will & Yates gallery and homestore (104 High St).
A five-minute stroll away is Smugglers Records (9 King St), the place for both old and new vinyl – with handy craft beer bar (check the very well-stocked fridges) and coffee machine too. They have a regular schedule of live appearances, signings and events too, such as Vic Reeves’ wildly popular live draw (see below). Just across the way is excellent new menswear shop J. Cosmo (65 High St), which mixes well-curated pieces with unique gifts and books (the pinball machine is fun, too).
If you’re self-catering, the local produce is unbeatable: there’s our absolute faves Jenkin’s fishmongers (118 High St, try the golden-hued whole smoked mackerel) and the Black Pig (4 St Georges Passage), as well as the Meat’In Place (Queen St) and Rooks butchers (77-81 High St), Le Pinardier for wine (102 High St), and excellent French cheeses at No Name (110 High St). We also rate Your Little Green Shop (119 High St) for refills, Kentish produce specialist Filbert’s (87b High St) for the best sourdough in town (from Folkestone’s Docker bakery) and Kwoff & Scoff (94 High St) for yet more local produce and vino. There are two greengrocers, and all the usual shops (chain and otherwise) you would expect on a busy high street, including the cute (Waterstones-owned) Deal Bookshop (52 High St).
One weekly happening you can’t miss is the Saturday market, an essential stop for bric-a-brac, books, second-hand furniture, swathes of quality Kentish fruit and veg, meats, sauces and flowers – not to mention people-watching.
In the last couple of years the market has noticeably moved with the times. Alongside the excellent Kentish cheese stall, there’s coffee from the characterful Moveable Feast caravan-cafe, which specialises in locally roasted beans from Real Deal Roastery, Kingsdown Bread, handmade up the coast each morning, ex-Walthamstow dwellers Bygga Bo serving upScandi-style cinnamon and fruit buns, and microbakery Eat & Mess on pain au raison, apricot scones and galettes duty. There’s even a sit-down-cafe Polish stall selling hangover-curing meatballs, sausages and pierogi.
Our #1 pit stop? The buzzy outdoor wine bar, with bierkeller-style benches, run by knowledgeable couple Kath and Pascal from Authentique Wines. Known as Wine Club to its loyal regulars, it’s perfect for a cheeky glass of pink Sancerre before lunch. And, if you’re new in town, on a sunny day it’s the best place to meet a bunch of us really rather lovely locals.
Need a caffeine kick elsewhere across town? Pop-Up cafe aside (see Eating section, below) our weekend tip is longstanding Italian-owned Miretti (125 High St), whose diminutive chocolate tartlets – and other goodies – are baked fresh daily. A bit further down the high street is Hope & Lane – and also worth remembering is the Post Room right next to the train station, with a leafy pavement terrace to mask the car park beyond.
Their sister cafe is Hut55, on the promenade up towards Walmer, with its south-facing wooden decking, picnic items and other tasty goodies making it the sunniest place for coffee or lunch in the area. You can even hire bikes. At the other end of the beach, at Sandown Castle, you’ll find the Hog & Bean coffee cart, too.
Swimming? It’s pretty balmy in the water in high summer: trust us, we bathe regularly six months of the year. We’re happy to jump in anywhere along the shingle, and the town beach is our go-to, but we can especially recommend Kingsdown beach – and, in the opposite direction, the quieter Sandown Castle ruin. A couple of miles further is glorious Sandwich Bay. Just watch the current.
Know your onions
So Deal seeps history: the delightful Maritime Museum (23 St George’s Road, 01304 381 344) is a good starting point, then embark on a brisk seafront hike south.
You’ll pass the four storey Timeball Tower, rose-shaped Deal Castle, with its dark passageways and authentic 16th century unadorned feel, and reach idyllic Walmer Castle, for a cream tea on the battlements. For opening times and more info on these head here.
Opposite the station is the very thorough Kent Museum of The Moving Image (£5.50, 41 Stanhope Road), which opened in 2018 and celebrates 350 years of the moving and projected images in permanent and temporary exhibitions. Find out more here.
Ponder some art
Deal’s art scene has slowly but surely upped its game recently. Only here for a weekend? Don’t miss the town’s flagship creative space, Linden Hall Studios (32 St George’s Road, open Wed-Sun), whose revolving schedule of contemporary artists is as compelling as the historic 18th century interior itself, with its mezzanine gallery and views over the bucolic churchyard. There are often lively and very friendly private views on Saturday afternoons, open to everyone. You might even get a free glass of vino (or two).
Also highly recommended is the quirky Taylor Jones & Son (High Street), which has just relocated to much larger corner premises, with its large canvases and regular exhibitions. Ten minutes’ walk south is hip Don’t Walk Walk (Sondes Road), run by acclaimed local artist Ned Kelly. This one is definitely worth seeking out. They’re also behind the weekends-only new Village Indoor Market (Sondes Road), open all day on Saturdays and Sundays for an eclectic mix of everything from cupcakes to vintage boiler suits.
Back near the Grade II-listed Town Hall, built in 1803 (itself worth a gawp) is Dunlin & Diver (112 High Street), which sells art and craft by local artists, and there are shows by a talented bunch of Dealites at Le Pinardier (High Street), which change every few weeks.
A popular annual event is the South East Art Trail, which takes place every June/July at artists’ open studios, and shows a wide range of work from traditional oil and watercolours to ceramics and textiles.
The long walk: St Margaret’s Bay
This wonderful cove, where playwright and actor Noel Coward owned a house on the beach, makes a glorious walk from Deal across the shingle beaches and white chalk cliffs (7 miles one way). Grab a pint or lunch at the newly refurbished Zetland Arms, perched on the beach (right) in the village of Kingsdown en route, and carry on over the cliffs for some well-deserved refreshments at The Coastguard, the ‘closest pub to France’ recently taken over Kentish brewery Shepherd Neame. They’ll easily call you a cab home.
Good places to eat – in no particular order
Deal Pier Kitchen
Locals were delighted when a top quality new brunch stop finally opened in 2019 at the end of the pier, its chic restyled interior a backdrop to a forward-thinking menu. There are tasty vegan options (the sweetcorn fritters are the bomb) the usual avocado-based and meaty breakfasts, as well as chalked-up daily lunch specials (think mussels, sirloin steak sarnies and fish finger sandwiches). Artisan coffee is recommended, too. For something stronger try cocktails like espresso martinis, bellinis and spritzes, plus a good wine and beer list. Deal Pier
The Rose Hotel
Deal’s big new opening of 2018 was originally built in 1891 as a smart Victorian hotel. Now there’s a cosy, slightly colonial lounge bar, a roof terrace with leafy churchyard views and a laidback (though often very busy) dining room with open kitchen and highly impressive new menu currently overseen by superstar chef Nuno Mendes (read our separate review here). More here.91 High St
Frog & Scot
Gobble Gallic-tinged grub at this all-day cafe and restaurant, which has just had a rather chic makeover, owned by the friendly team behind Le Pinardier. They have also bagged a new head chef, Harry Johnson, formerly Michelin-starred Daniel Rose’s right-hand man at La Bourse et la Vie in Paris. A la carte might include pan-fried gurnard fillets, heritage tomato salad, rare bavette and chips, roasted quails with cauliflower puree or a tasty Caesar salad with guinea fowl and truffle (pictured below). Daily specials at £15. More here.86 High St
Victuals & Co Housed in pedestrianized St George’s Passage (one of many ancient alleyways that link the high street with the seafront) Victuals is a little like a place you might stumble across in Soho. Recently under new management, there’s a cheaper lunch menu at £20 for two courses which mixes seasonal and local. More here.2-3 St George’s Passage
In 2016, long-established Kensington restaurant Whits moved to an unassuming parade in Walmer. Run by husband-and-wife team Steve and Eva Whitney, its combination of classical fish cookery, slick service and simple dining room won plaudits. Nine months after Steve’s untimely death in 2019, the venue reopened this summer as the eponymous Eva’s, a laid-back wine and cocktail bar with antipasti menu and deli. Enjoy sharing plates such oozing burrata with roasted tomatoes and basil, extremely filling home-made arancini (with a spicy kick), and a superior beef ragu. Especially recommended for the sweet-of-tooth is the chocolate and almond olive oil cake, too. 61 The Strand
The Sicilian Great value lunchtime pasta – we reckon the best in town – at about the £8 mark. Ask for the daily specials board for the likes of gnocchi, mussels and pesto, pasta con sarde (with fennel and saffron) or linguine with purple sprouting broccoli and anchovy. Plus meaty and roasted veg antipasti, a solid Italian wine list (try the Gavi), traditional Sicilian-style interior and more pricey evening menu on Saturdays. 2 Stanhope Road
Three Compasses Sure, its interior has remained unchanged in the 15 years we’ve known Deal, but this seafront institution is charming. Service is friendly and the food is skilfully executed for the price. Tip: the home-made buttery garlic flatbread is a must. More here.129 Beach St
Pop-up Cafe So popular with locals since it opened in 2012 that the owners have taken over the empty space next door, this cavernous two-floored industrial space has long been the town’s most essential stop for artisan coffee, brunch and lunchtime options seasonal salads, freshly baked savoury and sweet things. More here.16 High Street
81 Beach St Seasonal cooking in simply-decked seaside surroundings opposite the beach. Set lunch menus at a cheap £11.50 mark. This restaurant has been in situ for over a decade and still packs ’em in. We recently discovered their Sunday lunch – recommended at £14.80. More here.
And a special note on…Dining Club. The members-only dining room (only a tenner to join) has been run for many years by chef Scott Roberts. You will definitely need to book upfront as there are no walk-ins, but BYO wine keeps the cost down and its varied 5-course set menus start at £29.50. It’s fun and a unique experience if you’re visiting. More here.69 Middle Street
More places to eat
The seafront is peppered with options. Dunkerley’s is a Deal stalwart with competent set menus at £15 and £22.95 for two courses (19 Beach Street). For pizza with a sea view try Salentino’s, or, without, the new Margarita’s, which opened just after lockdown ended (52 Middle St). Then there’s timeless institution the Deal Beach Parlour, unchanged since the 1960s (although for Kentish ice cream, cross the road to the kiosk by the pier); further north is the Royal Hotel, still the only terrace or garden to eat actually on the beach; stick to locally caught fish or a sharing fish platters with ice-cold Cotes De Provence rosé (More here).
Elsewhere Deal Hoy is a neighbourhood pub serving artisan pizzas (try charcuterie or goat’s cheese, beetroot and fig specials, 16 Duke Street), while for the best Chinese and Asian food in town tuck into the dim sum at Hey Hey Dining Room (8 Victoria Road); the enduring Courtyard restaurant is just round the corner, too (Sondes Road).
And not forgetting fish ‘n’ chips…
In the old town at feeding times queues snake out of the Fish Shop at 78 Middle Street, but equally recommended are Sea View (69 Beach St, currently closed after a fire) and Blue Mermaid (8 Victoria Rd), which is signed from the seafront to save you using up your GPS. More of a takeaway chicken type? Peckish (14 King Street) is a rotisserie poultry joint just behind the seafront. It’s takeaway only, so handy if you’re self-catering.
Hit the pubs
Deal’s smuggling past means that its watering holes are legendary. Start with a pint on the piazza outside oldest pub in town, the 17th Century King’s Head (9 Beach St), then head north to The Bohemian (47 Beach St), with its pleasingly ramshackle sunset garden or west to top craft beer hangout The Taphouse (5 South Street) for a local Deal Time & Tide beer (and some of the best pizza in town), before disappearing into the old town and micropub the Just Reproach (14 King Street). Want an underrated beer garden? The Walmer Castle (5 South Street) is surprisingly tropical.
From there classic 18th century wood-panelled boozer – and one of our top 3 regulars – The Ship (141 Middle Street) is a few minutes’ amble; a little further is the tiny Prince Albert (187 Middle Street, which also has a dining room), Saracen’s Head (Alfred Square) and Deal Hoy (Duke Street), with one of the best beer gardens around.
Wine-lovers will gravitate towards affable French bottle shop Le Pinardier (102 High St), with live music on Saturdays at 7pm, or Bloody Mary’s (160 High St), which also boasts Curious Brew lager on tap (from acclaimed Tenterden winery Chapel Down) and the best bloody marys in Deal (yes, really). A very popular newcomer is prosaically named The Bar (152 High St), which also offers a good selection of Kentish wines and beers, with a pared-back, quite two-floored interior.
Cocktails? Make haste to The Rose (High Street, see above) or The Lane (15 South Court), which both rustle up a fine negroni (amongst other dangerously potent libations).
For a pint a stroll away from Deal, try very popular locally-loved alehouse The Berry (23 Canada Road); further still, and up the hill a bit (up near Walmer train staion), is busy new micropub The Freed Man (329 Dover Road). And if you end up in Martin, you must visit the atmospheric village pub (with huge garden) The Lantern (Wheatsheafe Lane, Martin Mill station). Burp.
Like your entertainment a little more arty?
Visit the Astor Theatre(Stanhope Road)for world and classic cinema at the new weekly Astor Picture House, quality gigs and surreal seaside variety shows a plenty (recommended is the regular cabaret bash Private Widdle, which hosts at least four shows a year, including the excellent Drag Race).
And The Lighthouse on the Strand in Walmer, about a twenty minute walk, is the place for an eclectic (and often free) programme of singer-songwriters, folk acts, comedians and DJs. There’s plenty of both London and locally-brewed craft beer on tap, too, as well as supper clubs, tapas nights and a popular, highly delicious Sunday lunch service (£15 for two courses).
The Rose boutique hotel has eight luxurious bedrooms (more info here). If it’s booked up, for traditional seafront splendour try The Royal Hotel, complete with three beach-facing rooms with historic verandahs, or try smaller boutiquey places like Bear’s Well, Dunkerley’s and Number One.
For self-catering there are now of course dozens of fisherman’s cottages on Airbnb or Keepers Cottages. If there’s a group of you, Allotment Apartment is a three-bed maisonette above popular deli and cafe Slow Food Cafe with treehouse-like wooden terrace (more info here).
Need more space than that? Beautifully restored Grade II-listed Georgian townhouse Cullen House sleeps up to 9.
Getting there & Around
By car it’s the A2 out of London (via Blackwall Tunnel), approx 1.5 – 2 hours from London. Direct Southeastern trains run from London St Pancras and take 83 mins.
To get around (and the promenade is made for cycling) hire a bike from Mike’s Bikes on the promenade (£14 a day). A useful cab shop is Deal Cars (01304 382345). And lastly, to explore nearby towns take the train to Sandwich (5 mins), Ramsgate (19 mins), Broadstairs (23 mins), Folkestone (25 mins) and Margate (29 mins).
With thanks to Deal-based photographer Mike Owen. Find out more about him here.
About this article: originally published back in 2007 in Coast Magazine, it was republished in longer form in London-based print title Gasholder in 2016, sister title to Weekendr. It has been updated comprehensively every summer, most recently September 2020. All venues mentioned obviously have social distancing policies now in place.
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