Food with a view: why I hope that outdoor dining (rain or shine) is here to stay

For as long as I can remember, my summer travels have been part holiday and part research, looking at interesting stores, grocers and new food concepts to write about on my return to the UK.  I think back to a few years ago, when my family and I did a road trip surveying the best burgers in California – from the most expensive Japanese Umami burgers, all the way to food trucks on the beach. I still dream about my In-N-Out burger and fries. But, like most of us, for the past two years I have taken my summer holidays in the UK.

I have just returned to London after ten days in Cornwall and revisited what has become my favourite beach, jellyfish and all, at Porthcurnick. Porthcurnick is a real bucket-and-spade, sandy beach with a few waves and beautiful views across the bay. But the big secret is that behind the beach and up a grassy hill on the Roseland Peninsular is The Hidden Hut, literally a hut with a bistro on the beach.  The first time that I wandered up the hill to buy lunch, there were people sitting at big oak tables outside the hut eating what looked like delicious food with the sound of the sea in the background.

A selection of cakes at the hidden hut
Photo credit: The Hidden Hut.

All the food is locally-sourced and the fish come straight from the sea to the kitchen… all local fishermen and small boats, no trawlers are allowed.  Of course, there is delicious local Cornish ice cream in a cone and mackerel pâté on big slices of thick, crusty bread. And then there are full meals – fried fish, sea food, sea food chowder, fish curry and delicious vegetables, all being cooked in an outdoor kitchen. The place is run by chef Simon and his partner, Jemma. Jemma’s mum, Maggie, lives locally and makes the cakes – I had a huge slice of delicious carrot cake with the most sumptuous icing.

Personally, I have only been for lunch, but one can enter into a ballot for the coveted dinner meals around the fire, which do sound extraordinary and sell out very quickly. Up to around 80 people can book and are then served, and apparently it is like a big picnic.  You bring your own plates, wine and cutlery and every feast is different, with Simon preparing a set menu for the night.

People enjoy a meal at The Hidden Hut
Photo credit: The Hidden Hut.

Although I knew that I was in England, when I was eating lunch, it felt as authentic as any restaurant seen on Instagram – from Ibiza to Mallorca or Positano. Truly, it felt as good as any summer anywhere: the sea, the delicious local food and the friendly, laid back people. Who cares about the weather!

Travelling home, we decided to continue our tour and spend a night at one of the Pigs – they call themselves ‘restaurants with rooms’.  Keen to continue outdoor eating, The Pig on the Beach in Dorset sounded perfect. The Pigs are committed to home-grown, seasonal and local produce. What they don’t grow in their own garden, they source locally within a 25-mile radius.

“There is a real sense of ‘theatre’ about staying there. We talk about ‘retail theatre’ but it was interesting to experience it in hospitality.”

There is a real sense of ‘theatre’ about staying there. We talk about ‘retail theatre’ but it was interesting to experience it in hospitality.  We went into the walled vegetable garden and greenhouse to chat to and watch the gardeners at work and knew that that’s what we would be eating on the lawn overlooking the beach that evening.

An allotment at The Pig on The Beach
Every one of The Pig’s location has an allotment and greenhouse. Photo credit: Jake Eastham.

The menu has the 25-mile food map on the back so that you know exactly where your produce is coming from if not from their own garden.  Even the flowers in the garden are edible and may end up as tea, or in a gin or on salad.  The gardener picked lemon verbena for me to take to make tea, which was a first for me.  There are now seven Pigs around the country, and the business produces about 17 tons of fruit and veg across its properties. Each hotel has a kitchen garden and greenhouse – which means no travel or packaging, and they compost all garden waste and have a very strict recycling regime. They also have their own beehives and produce their own honey, as well as hens for eggs, which you can boil yourself at breakfast.

“The Pig now runs an accredited Apprenticeship Scheme to help young people get into hospitality, developing chefs and hoteliers and sending them out into the world of work.” 

What I found most rewarding was that The Pig now runs an accredited Apprenticeship Scheme to help young people get into hospitality, developing chefs and hoteliers and sending them out into the world of work. There was another glorious English sandy beach a walk away with blue seas, overlooking huge white cliffs and with a book shop in a beach hut!

On the drive back to London, it got me thinking about what has happened to the UK since lockdown. Many of you who read the MBS News will have been to visit us in Primrose Hill, which has not changed much since we moved there over 20 years ago.  Primrose Hill has always worked like a village and there have always been spots where you can sit outside on the pavements throughout the year for as long as I can remember.  This has now been extended even further and has made the village even more appealing.  There are groups of ‘street friends’ who meet for outdoor coffee and breakfast most mornings in the same cafes.  But an outdoor eating culture has been quite rare in the UK – I suppose because of the weather.

Primrose Hill has always worked like a village.

All that has changed since lockdown as the country moves towards a more relaxed style of dining out.  But most importantly, the focus has moved towards community living – at the end of my street the restaurants have all got together to share an outdoor space with tables and chairs used by about six restaurants.  Wandering up the road to the corner shop one evening, people were at tables and chairs on the street terrace, eating dinner. There were outside lanterns lit, a jazz singer in the street and I had to blink to remind myself that I was in London and not in Spain!

I don’t want to over-romantacise it (evening dinners were difficult this winter, with everyone huddled together on the pavement in hats and coats), but it is my hope that al fresco dining remains part of our culture. Especially when paired with sustainable, in-season and locally-sourced produce, this sort of relaxed, community-focused experience feels to me like one of the very best ways to dine out. | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup