The Walpole Bay Hotel and The Minnis, Margate
“You either get it or you don’t”, says the proprietress, with a retro-skirted swish of dress, and a passion that burns for the hotel like a girl for her fairy castle. If you “get it”, you fall in love with the place, and see beyond the flaws to a wonderful recreation of a turn-of-the-last-century seaside hotel, with all the glamour and excitement that that entails. My husband did not “get it”. So he saw a building still in serious need of refurbishment, with faded and worn carpets and cracked and peeling paint in the public areas and slightly poky, stained and basic bedrooms (they have been greatly expanded from the original rooms, but are still on the small side). A little of the fairy dust rubbed off on me, and I was able to buy in to The Story more. But neither of us was able to deny either the absolute commitment and adoration that the proprietors have for the property, or the fact that The Story is an incredible one.
Margate’s Walpole Bay Hotel was built in 1914 and was a thriving establishment until the craze for holidaying abroad caught the public imagination, and the hotel consequently lost much its trade. Times became so hard that the needed upkeep could not be carried out, and the hotel was eventually destined for the wrecker’s ball. The current owners used to court on the beach outside and had fallen in love with the building; they used to dream about owning it and restoring it to its former glory, but could never imagine being able to afford it. When, however, they heard of its imminent destruction they were determined to save it: so they gave up their jobs, put a business plan together and scraped together every penny from every source possible; when they finally thought they had managed to secure the building, they discovered that the mortgage had fallen through due to poor survey results. Despair yet again turned to elation when the then-owner – who also did not want to witness the hotel’s destruction – agreed to let them have it for five years to see if they could turn it round. They did, and, although finances are still extremely tight, the hotel continues to welcome visitors.
Consequently it is still work in progress, all profits being ploughed into the next upgrades, and one is asked to overlook the obvious defects in favour of the bigger picture. Personally, I would have focused on getting certain rooms up to a very high standard and only opening those rooms alone to the public rather than having the whole hotel open but scrimping on things such as flowers, fresh milk, linen napkins, quality teabags, decent toiletries and suchlike – the small things that really make a place.
The first impressions – after admiring the exterior with its seafront location and flower-filled veranda – were of a cluttered space with rather fussy decor (overblown floral-patterned wallpaper and elaborately-gathered curtains) bursting with knick-knacks – the lobby full of everything from trophies, gramophones and old clothing, through machinery and plants to jugs and cups. I was immediately enthralled, however, by the wonderful old-fashioned lift (with two drawgates) – an original 1927 item which took me right back to some of the old London underground stations from my very early childhood.
The hotel doubles as a museum. It started out with various objects left by the previous owners, including hotel registers going right back to the initial years of the hotel alongside laundry, cleaning and kitchen items dating back to the earlier decades of the twentieth century. Over the years an increasing number of people have donated items, so the fifth floor is crammed with tiny rooms (the original bedrooms and bathrooms), while glass cases line the corridors full of particular, themed, objects – cleaning implements, doctors’ instruments, gloves, a nurse’s outfit, hats, dolls, and so on. There is also even a functions bar and ballroom with original sprung floor. It’s really quite fascinating. Another oddity is the napery collection – another Story, which has resulted in an extensive collection of the original linen napkins that customers have taken away, decorated and returned – with artwork in every imaginable medium, or with poems written on by those of a more literary and less artistic disposition. These are displayed framed in the dining room and corridors – some are rough and crude; whilst others really are works of art.
Our room had bold modern floral wallpaper and a very high and extremely soft bed; a tiny balcony looking out over the bowling green with just enough room on which to squeeze two chairs; the obligatory large TV screen facing the bed; a large wardrobe and several chests of drawers, but a rather boxy feel. A very basic kettle is provided along with PG Tips, instant coffee and UHT milk (oh dear). The room was baking hot when we entered – so much so that we were physically knocked back by the heat and had to immediately switch all the radiators off and open all the windows (at least they opened, unlike in some hotels!). The bathroom was so tiny that with the bathmat laid before the bath one couldn’t open or close the door, yet it was clean enough, with smart if not particularly classy tiles and it did, thankfully, have a bath.
I have to be honest and say that the food was not the high point of the stay – but then, I don’t think it is meant to be. Although the restaurant aimed at being a recreation of an Edwardian dining room, with banqueting chairs, plastic tablecloths and paper napkins, the appearance, I’m afraid, was more of a sterile conference centre. The service from the waiter was good, attentive, thoughtful and friendly (even if his shoes could have done with a polish). He forgot to offer us the wine list – or even a drink at all – but apologised profusely for not doing so when I requested this. I must confess that I was shocked to discover later that he was not actually a dedicated waiter, but also the night-duty porter, and my appreciation of his waiting services rose in light of this multi-tasking.
One of things that most impressed us was the fact that the highchair provided for baby Tristan was spotlessly clean – including the hard-to-clean (we know from experience!) straps – which was a very good sign. The music was also better than one usually finds in restaurants, with Frank Sinatra and other easy-listening bands; although this was interspersed with rather more aggressive 1970s numbers, at least the volume was low enough not to preclude conversation.
Alarm bells immediately rang when we saw the menu populated by too many items for them all to be anything special; almost all options, furthermore, were stuck rigorously in the 1970s, the starters especially. Rolls, which were proffered first, appeared to be of the baked-from-frozen variety, and my leek and potato soup was very salty; barely any other flavours were discernible, and it was of the great-chunks-of-vegetable rather than the finely pureed type. My husband’s smoked salmon was simply served, with a basic salad, tartar sauce and lemon. The salmon was fine, although the edges of it seemed a little stale and dry and the quality of the fish was not spectacular. His duck had been cooked consistently, and was, pleasingly, all meat and not interspersed with lumps of gristle as can be the case. Unfortunately, however, he declared the flavour non-existent, and it had a rather tough, chewy texture to boot. The accompanying vegetables, again, were appropriately cooked but rather lacking in taste. My sea bass had a delicate flavour and was served on rocket with a parsley butter. It was a generous portion, but had a slightly chewy texture. Baby Tristan seemed to enjoy it immensely.
Those with sweet teeth would be in seventh heaven at the Walpole Bay, with the desserts saccharine incarnate: the lemon and ginger cheesecake and Alabama Fudge Cake were both very sticky and extraordinarily sweet.
We were not displeased to be dining out on the second evening of our stay, at the award-winning The Minnis at nearby Birchington. Right on the seafront, this has two rooms, one housing the rather functional-looking bar (with some sofas as well as bar stools in faux leather and wood), and the second the dining room proper. The dining room chairs are also faux leather; and the tables rather basic with wood-effect plastic veneer. The decor is predominantly white (walls, ceiling and some of the chairs); and there is a rather worn, utilitarian grey carpet; colour is injected by coloured lighting on the walls and by some of the photographs – the seascapes are in vibrant colours; ones of people are greyscale. Metal fans above the tables lend an American diner air; the most elegant part of the room is the wainscoting.
Tables are left undressed with just a flower (pleasingly, a real one), tumblers for water and slightly blunt cutlery (no bread knife). We were seated at a table by the long, PVC windows looking out over a patio area with the seafront just beyond.
The menus immediately impressed – there are daily options as well as a set menu, with interesting and tempting choices. The wine list, on the other hand, was basic, with relatively few options for each wine, and all on the cheap and cheerful side, so we went for a bottle of Prosecco (cowards!). The service, although causal, was very friendly and, as always, baby Tristan was well looked-after and fussed over. Bread was brought to the table – nice thick chunks of this, but it rather lacked flavour.
I had opted to start with the beef croquettes, which were very good, with meltingly slow-cooked beef inside and a nicely crunchy breadcrumbed exterior. The accompanying tomato ketchup rather let the side down – it was overpowering and unnecessary, as the croquettes were perfect as they were. My husband described his haddock rissole as rather nondescript – lacking in flavour and with was no attempt to provide a foil of texture, as he deemed even the breadcrumb exterior soggy, but I was personally more impressed by this dish than he was, and felt that there was a slightly acidic element to it which cut through the salty and creamy haddock well.
The pork also failed to please Mr Marshall-Luck, which he again found lacked flavour, which was made up for in excess by the mustard-orientated sauce and overly-seasoned mashed potatoes , yet he enjoyed the nicely steamed vegetables.
Perhaps I was making better choices, for my slow cooked beef brisket was good – two large chunks of meat in a huge bowl full of vegetables and gravy. The meat itself was quite tender and succulent; the marbling of fat lending extra flavour. The addition of pancetta in the dish lent a smoky, bacon-y flavour which was another welcome dimension. The herb dumplings provided a good contrast to the beef and were nicely herby, although too much on the dry side for my personal taste.
The desserts were very 1980s, with a “deconstructed tiramisu” and ice-cream, neither of which particularly excelled, and my husband was also disappointed with his coffee which was served with sachets of UHT cream. My tea, however, was lovely – proper Twinings English Breakfast; a relief after PG Tips at the Walpole Bay Hotel.
On the whole, a slightly mixed meal – yet prices were very reasonable indeed and I certainly felt that my very good starter and main course were good value. And so back we rolled to the popular and quirky Walpole Bay Hotel, a short drive away, and its soft and comfortable bed…
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Restaurant and Wine Critic