Last month’s search for the best outdoor eating spots in Britain showed the lengths restaurants will go to when creating al fresco spots, installing expensive heaters in gardens and retractable canopies over patios.
This only highlights the devil-may-care attitude adopted by seafood shacks, which are defined by a wild eccentricity: coastal cabins are shrouded in sea mist, and trailers parked up on peninsulas are blasted by storms.
Most shacks allow diners to bring their own booze. Many invite parties to bring their own bread, condiments and cutlery, too. The decor is usually functional: wipe-clean tablecloths, blackboards to chalk up the daily catch and disposable bibs.
This lack of rules encourages exciting entrepreneurship. Whether it’s a converted fisherman’s hut, a repurposed London bus, or a shipping container transformed into a seaside diner, the eclectic nature of seafood shacks encapsulates the best of quirky British summertime dining.
LONDON AND SOUTHEAST
THE BLOODY OYSTER
Southbank, London SE1
In Victorian London, oysters were devoured by the masses. It’s what inspired the founders of the Bloody Oyster, who are trading out of a double-decker bus on the Southbank and running a £1 oyster happy “hour” (4-6pm, Tue-Fri). They also do a blindingly good bloody mary (£6.50) and a po’boy burger (£8), stuffed with hot, crisp, deep-fried oysters.
Billingsgate, Poplar, London E14
It’s a myth that you have to be at the fish market at sunrise to see any action. Getting there for 7am gives plenty of time for a quick lap to admire the trays of writhing eels, before stopping for breakfast at Piggy’s. The old-school caff does a bacon bap topped with huge scallops and served with a mug of tea for under a fiver.
BONNIE GULL SEAFOOD SHACK
Fitzrovia, London W1
It’s a central London restaurant, but it wheedles its way onto the list on account of the “shack” in its title and because it has requisitioned oyster boxes, red gingham tablecloths, blackboards and a rustic, wood-plank bar to create a trad interior. It’s central London prices, but with fine-dining dishes that justify the expense.
Crisp soft-shell crab, deep-fried in Old Bay batter and crammed into a brioche bun helped propel Crabbieshack to victory as the Best Streetfood in London 2014. Since winning the coveted prize, the Folkestone-born founder, Dougie Robertson-Ritchie, has built a loyal following who track down his mobile shack wherever it goes in the UK, whether at a Kerb street-food market or summer festival.
THE LOBSTER SHACK
Take a look behind the Kia dealership east of the harbour, following the mounds of oyster shells, and you’ll get to the Lobster Shack. The old industrial building is a great event space, with beautiful views out to sea and plenty of picnic tables outside. Start with half a dozen rock oysters from the nearby beds (£9), followed by cod and chips (£8) and a pint of local IPA from the Whitstable Brewery (£3).
DUNGENESS SNACK SHACK
Romney Marsh, Kent
Kelly Smith’s family have fished off the Kent coast for 300 years, and they still make daily trips out in their two boats (the Annalousion and Doreen T). Her shack is on the shingles next to their fishmonger, the Fish Hut, so she has first dibs on the morning’s catch for her fisherman’s rolls (£3.50) — seasonal fillets in a bun, best eaten with lashings of yellow Hastings lemon ketchup.
Worthing, West Sussex
This delightful scrubbed-wood shack opened last June. Run by sisters-in-law Lynda and Sarah and their husbands, it’s a welcome addition to Worthing seafront, with super-friendly service in a basic but cosy setting. The fishy offerings range from “posh” fish and chips with a herb crust and minted pea purée (£15) to crispy chilli squid (£7 as a starter) and lashings of fresh crab (£17, dressed).
Look out for the orange crab logo stamped on the front of this simple shack, which is popping up on the festival circuit over the summer (Cowes Week, until Saturday; Green Man festival, August 18-21; the Good Life Experience, September 16-18). Shoestring fries are seasoned with Cajun spices, and the renowned Claw burger is made from just Devon crab and herbs — no potato or white fish bulker — with samphire ’slaw and a dollop of lemon aÏoli inside a brioche bun (£7).
WEST AND SOUTHWEST
CRAB HOUSE CAFE
Wyke Regis, Dorset
The crab is a delicious undertaking: it comes with hammer, crackers, seafood fork and bib. The whole crab (£20) will satiate big appetites, but consider going for half (£11.25) to leave room for some oysters (£11.50 for six) — the cafe has its own Portland oyster beds next door, so they couldn’t come fresher. A super family restaurant with lots of outdoor seats and gorgeous views over Chesil Beach.
BARRICANE BEACH CAFE
The aroma of coconut dhal and curry isn’t what you’d expect to fill the air in this north Devon cove, but as late afternoon turns into early evening, the Barricane Beach Cafe starts cooking its daily Sri Lankan feast (5pm-7pm). Work up an appetite with a pre-dinner dip, bring a rug (there are only a few tables) and a bottle (no corkage). If the forecast is bad, it’s worth checking the Facebook page to make sure dinner is on.
THE BEACH HUT
Watergate Bay, Cornwall
Muddy boots and sandy dogs are all welcome at this enormous shack nestled in the rocks at Watergate Bay. It’s a busy hangout year round. On chilly afternoons the extreme hot chocolate (£3.50) is a popular order. Over the summer months, the timber deck is filled with families sharing bowls of popcorn squid with sriracha (£8) and tempura prawn skewers (£8).
THE HIDDEN HUT
Near St Mawes, Cornwall
On the first day of each month, tickets go on sale for the Hidden Hut’s famous feasts: whopping paella, Keralan curries and the occasional spit-roast goat. Diners bring their own cutlery, plates and drinks and grab a seat at one of the banquet tables, set just above Porthcurnick Beach. On a normal basis the shed serves freshly baked cakes, sandwiches and salads.
CRAB SHACK ON THE BEACH
Chef Charlie Goddard does a mean toasted crab croque with grilled cheese that comes with crab soup (£10.50), and buckets of crab claws drenched in garlic butter (£16). It’s cracking comfort food, but for a celebratory dinner, it doesn’t come much better than the crab platter to share (£48 for two). It’s loaded with winkles, whelks and prawns, alongside the crabs caught by the shack’s own fishing boats, the Royal Escape and La Vagabonde des Mer. Enjoy as the sun sets, with views over the Teign.
THE RUM & CRAB SHACK
St Ives, Cornwall
The rums come from Cuba, Guyana, Panama, Barbados and even further afield, but the seafood is all local. It’s Cornwall meets the Caribbean, as the kitchen laces Newlyn-crab dishes with a dash of rum — like the crab and rum soup with half a crab sandwich (£5). Try the spiced Cornish house rum, Dead Man’s Fingers (£3.10), and round off dinner with a scoop of rum and stem ginger ice cream (£2.25) or slice of spiced rum and ginger cake, which is supplied by the nearby Bosparva Bakery (£5.50).
THE LITTLE GLOSTER
Isle of Wight
The Little Gloster looks like a simple hut, but dishes are far more elaborate than standard shack snacks, with prices to match. The “surf and turf” sharing platter (£90 for two) includes gremolata crevettes, Isle of Wight dressed crab and half a lobster, as well as 28-day aged sirloin steak. Beautiful views across the Solent make the perfect backdrop to a seafood feast.
EAST AND NORTH
THE COMPANY SHED
West Mersea, Essex
This family-run restaurant, founded by Heather Haward and her husband, Richard, a seventh-generation oysterman, requires a little patience. No reservations and a cult following mean there’s often a wait to bag a seat at one of the nine tables. Diners can bring their own bottle, or order a glass of Mersea Native, perfect with a dozen gigas oysters (£12) or the shellfish platter (£16).
THE BUTLEY ORFORD OYSTERAGE
Forget any modern frills: the decor harks back to the 1960s and a smell of kipper wood smoke hangs in the air. It’s a refreshing case of substance over style, though. The fresh Butley oysters are fat and meaty (£16 for a dozen), fillets are a good size and served with mounds of buttery new potatoes, and the fish pie (£14) is loaded with its own smoked fare.
SOLE BAY FISH CO
Blackshore, Southwold, Suffolk
The Sole Bay Fish Co is a bashed-together network of fishermen’s shacks, with a fishmonger and ready-to-eat counter operating alongside the restaurant. It’s eclectic and eccentric: a patchwork of framed photographs on the wall, just 14 tables and an aquarium filled with “pet” lobsters. Seafood platters (from £25) are a work of art, with mounds of whelks, cockles and mussels, ringed by huge prawns and crevettes.
THE CRAB HUT
Brancaster Staithe, Norfolk
There’s something about pairing a crab-filled torpedo roll with a mug of strong tea that makes you proud to be British. This harbourside shack is owned by fisherman Simon Letzer, who sells the kippers and salmon he cures in his own smokehouse, alongside cockles, mussels, crayfish and crab caught on expeditions in his boat, Speedwell. They are dressed and heaped into soft rolls for a sensational sandwich (from £3.80).
More high-street hut than shack, Hooked serves seafood caught off the west coast, all of which is cooked simply and respectfully: a beautiful plate of razor clams with pancetta, chilli and garlic butter (£8) came without any flourishes, relying instead on top ingredients and confident cooking. It’s also about the friendly service in this intimate, evening-only spot — make reservations in advance.
RILEY’S FISH SHACK
Tynemouth, Tyne & Wear
This started as a portable bicycle grill, searing seafood over hot coals at street markets and festivals. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, the founders launched a more permanent site made from converted shipping containers at King Edward’s Bay. It’s not been open a year, but already has a far-reaching reputation for its fish wraps (from £5), cooked over the wood-fired grill and served with chilli relish and garlic potatoes.
CRASTER SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
This restaurant is an offshoot from a fourth-generation smokehouse, established in 1856. It still uses traditional methods, curing the plumpest herrings with oak smoke until they’re dark and oily. There are plenty of other options on the menu: smoked salmon (£6.50) also from the smokehouse, and South American dishes such as casquinha de siri crab (£7) . A pair of smoky Craster kippers on bread (£9) is a must.
WALES, SCOTLAND, NORTHERN IRELAND
Pembroke Dock, Pembrokeshire
A catering trailer pitched near Freshwater West beach, this place has been showered with awards. Alongside lobster, crab and mackerel, it also serves a mean bacon roll with “black butter” salted with seaweed. It stocks its own line of foraged store-cupboard items, too — from Welshman’s Caviar (dried, toasted laver) to Captain Cat’s Mor Seasoning, made with paprika, lemon peel, laver and dulse seaweed.
THE SHED BISTRO
Occupying an old machine shop on the quayside, the Shed has views across the harbour. Red gingham tablecloths, hanging ferns and a flagstone floor create a cosy kitchen feel, and the food is home-style cooking at its best: Porthgain crab cakes (£7.50), meaty hake fillets with caponata (£17), and monkfish tail in a crisp beer batter (£13). Be sure to save room for the banana split, served with a wicked whisky and butterscotch sauce, vanilla ice cream and chopped nuts (£6).
North Berwick Harbour
It’s no bigger than a garden shed, but the Lobster Shack hasn’t let that restrain its culinary ambitions. Cardboard takeaway boxes are filled with grilled local lobster, homemade chips and salad (from £15), or Shetland rope-grown mussels (£11). There are a few tables made from upturned creels on the quay and the shack is fully licensed and stocked with local brews such as Belhaven ale (£4) and Thistly Cross cider (£4).
OBAN SEAFOOD HUT
It’s hard to miss fisherman Josh Ogden’s harbourside hut. It’s next to the big green sign welcoming visitors to Oban, the “seafood capital of Scotland”. If the hut’s seafood is anything to go by, then it’s a difficult statement to argue with. The Styrofoam containers are piled high with langoustines dripping in garlic butter, mounds of mussels, crab claws and rock oysters. At £25 for a towering platter for two, it’s an absolute steal.
LOCH LEVAN SEAFOOD CAFE
At £40 per person, the seafood platters on ice aren’t cheap, but connoisseurs will appreciate that the plump langoustines and fat scallops are among the best in the world. The shellfish are caught by local fishermen and stored in tanks pumped with loch water to ensure the freshest of ingredients. If you want to pop in, you’ll find lots of cheaper dishes on the menu, which changes daily, plus a three-course children’s menu for £8.
THE OYSTER SHED
Forget cod’n’chips — at the Oyster Shed in Skye, it’s half a lobster with chips (£8.50) or langoustines with chips (£7). True to its name, this is a basic shed, made from corrugated metal, but it’s in a prime position overlooking Loch Harport, where the oysters are farmed, and just down the road from Talisker distillery. Pair the seafood with a dram of whisky and round it off with a taster of the local ice cream.
Portstewart, Co Londonderry
Set against the vast backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, this lone hut is true shack. The wooden interior and turf roof echo this, but the food is not simple. Heston Blumenthal protégé Derek Creagh heads up the kitchen and his stunning dishes are fast turning Harry’s into a destination diner. Be sure to book for evening meals; walk-ins are available at lunchtime.
Not only does this cafe on the east coast of Arran have some of the world’s best seafood on its doorstep, but it has its own smokehouse next door. Salmon pates and haddock quiches are licked with sweet whisky smoke. Home-style dishes are served alongside more formal plates piled high with juicy langoustines and Gigha halibut, which are joyously incongruous against the understated cafe backdrop and wipe-clean tablecloths. It’s BYOB, with £3 corkage.