“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. But frustratingly for many residents, the café is awaiting a new tenant.
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.
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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. And don’t miss the brand new Will & Yates gallery and homestore up on Beach Street (No.95) behind the Royal Hotel.
A five-minute stroll away is Smugglers Records (9 King St), the place for both old and new vinyl – with handy craft beer (check the very well-stocked fridges) and coffee bar on site. They have a regular schedule of live appearances, signings and events too, such as Vic Reeves’ recent live draw (see above). Just across the way is excellent new menswear shop J. Cosmo (65 High St), which also has a branch in Margate.
If you’re self-catering, the local produce is unbeatable: there’s Jenkin’s fishmongers (118 High St), the Black Pig (4 St Georges Passage), 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). There are also two greengrocers, and all the usual shops you would expect on a busy high street.
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. There’s now a real foodie element, with – alongside the excellent Kentish cheese stall – 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 doing Scandi-style cinnamon and fruit buns; and microbakery Eat & Mess on pain au raison, apricot scones and galettes duty.
Our favourite pit stop? The hugely popular 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 really rather lovely locals.
Need a caffeine kick elsewhere across town? Pop-Up cafe aside (see Eating section, below) our absolute #1 is longstanding Italian-owned Miretti (125 High St), whose diminutive chocolate tartlets – and other goodies – are baked fresh daily. Next door is new arrival Slow Food Cafe (119 High St), which has a lovely secret garden out back, 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.
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 brand new and very thorough Kent Museum of The Moving Image (£5.50, 41 Stanhope Road), which 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 eclectic objets and large canvases showing regular exhibitions. Ten minutes’ walk south is hip newcomer Don’t Walk Walk (Sondes Road), run by acclaimed local artist Ned Kelly. This one is definitely worth seeking out.
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.
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Eating: our top tips
The Rose Hotel Deal’s big new opening of 2018, and most recently a much-loved trad boozer, 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. The menu changes weekly, but expect small plates (such as charred hispi with romesco or duck ham) and simple but well-executed mains (chicken schnitzel with slaw, say, or smoked haddock with samphire). More here.91 High St
Frog & Scot Gobble gallic-tinged grub at this all-day cafe and restaurant owned by the friendly team behind Le Pinardier. Evening a la carte might include halibut with avruga caviar sauce or confit duck, but especially popular is the lunch set menu, £14.95 for two petite but tasty courses (with another more upmarket menu at £23.95). There’s also a very bargainous main course and glass of wine deal for £10. 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 good value Saturday lunch menu (£19 for two courses) which mixes seasonal and local: the tender rare fillet steak from nearby Ash is recommended (£7.50 supplement). More here.2-3 St George’s Passage
The Black Douglas A seafront cafe with granny-chic interior, leisurely home-made breakfasts, cakes and lunches with newly refurbished cosy Moroccan-style garden at the rear. Try a halloumi salad, or thick slab of home-made quiche. Open Friday nights for dinner. More here.83 Beach St
Pop-up Cafe So popular with locals that the young owners have taken over the empty space next door, this cavernous two-floored industrial space is probably 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
Whit’s of Walmer This long-running Kensington brasserie relocated to the seafront up near the bandstand in 2016. Classical French cooking (from fresh crab to local lamb), a good wine list, friendly service and sunny courtyard terrace with simpler bar menu and sharing plates. Our tip is the delicious but filling three-course Sunday lunch (£24.50). Pop into 1815 antiques shop, and the Lighthouse after (see below). More here.61 The Strand
Deal Hoy Neighbourhood local with stripped back interior, cosy wood-burner, oysters, decent beer and tasty artisan pizzas. Try the charcuterie or goat’s cheese, beetroot and fig specials (around £10). 16 Duke Street
Salentino’s Prefer pizza with a sea view? This contemporary trattoria opened late last year and has proved to be a bit hit and miss, with service that can be frustrating. From the non-pizza dishes, a deeply savoury pork ragu is a highlight. Beach Street, opposite pier
Royal Hotel Still the only terrace or garden to eat actually on the beach, it’s the perfect place for a chilled glass while staring at the deep blue. Stick to locally caught fish or a sharing fish platters with ice-cold Cotes De Provence rosé – and the best pier view in town. More here.
81 Beach St Seasonal cooking in simply-decked seaside surroundings opposite the beach. Set lunch menus at a very cheap £10 mark. This restaurant has been in situ for a decade and still packs ’em in. We recently discovered their Sunday lunch – recommended at £14.80. More here.
Hey Hey Dining Room Above a longer running Chinese takeaway, with polished boards, birdcage pendants, a huge mantelpiece and a white-tiled kitchen, this dining room is elegantly colonial in feel. Our tip? the crispy pork belly. And the dim sum. 8 Victoria Road
Three Compasses Sure, it’s a little old-fashioned but this seafront institution is charming in its own way – and we love the two-couse £10 set lunch too. On a recent visit we simply raved about the starters: tender charred octopus salad, a ham hock with fried duck egg and cod with chickpeas and chorizo. More here.129 Beach St
Dining Club A members’ dining room (only a tenner to join, but no membership required on our last visit), the Dining Club has been run for many years by Gary Rhodes-endorsed chef Scott Roberts. 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
Dunkerley’s It’s a Deal institution with a wildly mixed rep amongst locals, and a rather dated, stifling atmosphere, but nonetheless on the last couple of visits the food has impressed, whether it’s seared mackerel, slow-cooked lamb shoulder or a particularly rich wild mushroom risotto. Set menus at £15 and £22.95 for two courses. More here.19 Beach Street
Burger Brothers Another seafront gem that knocks up a pretty good patty and bun (served beautifully medium rare as requested on our last visit). Some of the town’s best cocktails and craft beer too. Gets busy at weekends. More here.51-53 Beach Street
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.
Going posh? You could try the Hythe Bay Seafood Restaurant (41 Beach St), although watch the bill as it can easily mount up. And it’s way more popular with visitors than locals.
More of a takeaway chicken type? Peckish (14 King Street) is, as you’d expect, a brand new rotisserie poultry joint just behind the seafront. It’s takeaway only, so perfect if you’re self-catering. While it’s cheap and cheerful (around a tenner for a meal for two), we’re still holding out for them to use free-range Kentish birds.
Thirsty? Read this
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 Cafe (5 South Street) for a local Deal Time & Tide beer (and very decent pizza), 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. (Note: it’s something of a teenage hangout after 11pm).
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), Saracen’s Head (Alfred Square) and Deal Hoy (Duke Street, see above).
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 hip two-floored interior.
Cocktails? Make haste to the seafront Taproom (51 Beach Street), The Rose (High Street, see above) or The Lane (15 South Court), which all rustle up a fine negroni (amongst other dangerously potent libations).
For a pint a stroll away, 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, 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).
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The Rose boutique hotel has just opened, with eight luxurious bedrooms (more info here).
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 by the station (£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).