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It’s picked up a sackful of awards in recent years, but The Sportsman “hasn’t been spoiled by its celebrity” – so writes a fan of this unlikely Michelin-starred roadside pub overlooking the bleak Kent marshes. Shabby-chic interiors, mismatched farmhouse furnishings, blackboard menus and real ales set the tone and you’re still expected to order at the bar, but congenial laid-back service adds to the charm of the place and the cooking is never less than “sublime”. Maverick chef Stephen Harris is a champion of local sourcing and self-sufficiency who bakes bread, cures fish, churns butter and even produces his own sea salt. Yes, it may sound “weird” and homespun, but the food hits the heights without ever seeming overly fussy. We’re fans of the memorable book-in-advance tasting menu (a procession of pitch-perfect seasonal delicacies), but the daily carte also yields pleasures aplenty: poached rock oysters with apple and seaweed; thornback ray with brown butter, cockles and sherry vinegar dressing; smoked maple-cured pork loin with chorizo sauce; braised turbot with mussel and bacon tartare. For afters, there might be a nostalgic combo of jasmine-tea junket with rosehip syrup or a textbook raspberry soufflé with ripple ice cream. A final word on value from one reader: “you may not be getting the luxury and style that many starred restaurants provide, but you aren't paying for it either”.
SquareMeal’s Best Restaurants in the UK 2018 is compiled using votes from our annual survey, last conducted in spring 2018. Thousands of readers took part and the results were moderated by SquareMeal’s editor and his nationwide team of professional reviewers. The UK survey does not include any restaurants in London. Click here for the full list of SquareMeal’s Best Restaurants in the UK.
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Whitstable Station 5km
Faversham Station 5km
Willows Touring Park 3km
Whitstable & Seasalter Golf Club 4km
Tues-Sun 12N-2pm (Sun – 2.45pm) Tues-Sat 7-9pm
Food & Drink:
Rate & Review
Food + drink: 4
The Sportsman isn't easy to reach in a couple of ways. First its along narrow coastal lanes a few miles west of Whitstable; when you get there, the place is busy and the car park is often close to full. And related to that my attempts to make reservations about a week in advance initially failed for both lunch and dinner
(their wait-list worked for us and we were contacted the day before to indicate that there was a table the next day if we still wanted it. We did.) So book well ahead and allow time to get there.
It doesn't look like a Michelin starred restaurant from the outside - an ordinary large pub crouched beneath the sea wall surrounded by lots of cars. Inside it was somewhat smarter, though still on the ordinary side. Its not plush, and it bears closer comparison to a large pub than Mayfair. Basically there is no printed menu so if your idea of joy is to sit comfortably at your table whilst making a leisurely choice that's not how this place seems to work, and instead you stand in front of a blackboard and make your first/main course selections and log these with the bar. There is a printed wine list though again ordering at the bar seems to be the way it goes. For me, I'd prefer not to have my introduction to their good food to go like this and I'd like a menu at my table please. Service was friendly throughout , but the gap between courses was a bit too long and we're not people who like to rush our restaurant visits.
The food was pretty good. Is it Michelin standard? Yes it is. My mackerel starter and cod based main were both very pleasant, attractively presented and flavourful. If you put this place in London it would be an average one star, and might well not enjoy the accolades it gets in an area where frankly the competition is less. My wife's ox cheek was very nicely cooked with no sign of the residual fattiness or connective tissue that sometimes spoils this dish. We both enjoyed the apple souffle.
A word on value. You may not be getting the luxury and style that many starred restaurants provide, but you aren't paying for it either. Our five course between us, a very decent southern French red, and service came to £106, which we were very happy to pay for food of this quality. Portion sizes are larger than we're used to in starred restaurants too. Would we revisit? If we were staying nearby then yes, we would. Is it good enough to stimulate a trip to Whitstable that we would not otherwise make, then possibly not. We did enjoy it.
Food + drink: 2
The question that immediately sprang to mind on looking at the tasting menu, that showed quite a few similarities to the one we had had in the Spring, was how many signature dishes should a chef include throughout the year with apparently little regard for seasonality. Sadly our hope that the “sample” tasting menu might be changed on a daily basis was not realised, and, even more regrettably, a comparison of the photographs of the April dinner with what we were served in October confirmed our opinion that the former dishes appeared to be superior. Our review earlier in the year had been full of praise for the quality of the food, and the staff, and our favourable impression was the reason for our return to The Sportsman, so it was inevitable, given the fact that we had experienced five of the dishes before, that we would draw comparisons. What we had termed “a copious complement of nibbles” had been diminished by 50% in quantity and the biscuit with cheese and tomato filling, the Bramley apple jelly with smoked mackerel on a bread base, and the turbot with yoghurt tartare and soy foam were not bad but failed to reach the same heights. The oysters did though; two rock and one native, each dressed separately, one with chorizo, one poached and with caviar and cucumber, and the Whitstable native with a mild horseradish sauce. My wife’s aversion to oysters meant that she was treated to three smoked salmon delicacies with the same dressings. The white crab meat with strips of carrot and creamy sauce that followed, after the homemade bread and butter with Seasalter salt, was good, but the curry powder that had brought this dish up to the top level before was practically absent this time. The mushroom and celeriac tart had been so good that “masterpiece” was the key word in our last review. This time, despite the various elements such as the tart pastry being up to scratch, it suffered from being slightly undercooked and the dish was far from the right temperature. The next two dishes were also served rather cool, the signature slipsole on the bone, once more with no accompaniment bar the seaweed butter, still impressed, and the turbot braised in vin jaune and served with its sauce and with a smoked pork belly rasher and firm green bean shreds providing good texture made for a dish that was fine but which would have benefited from being hotter. When the slow-braised lamb shoulder (saddle in the Spring) came also requiring several degrees more heat to really enable us to fully appreciate the superb taste of the meat, we wondered if there was some trend being set or whether our food had simply been sitting around because we weren’t eating quickly enough for the kitchen. We enquired whether chef was in the kitchen, but it appeared not to be the case. Disappointingly, the ice lolly palate cleanser had been replaced by a runny, unset lemon verbena posset. Finally we got a hot dish, the signature soufflé, this time Bramley apple, making for a perfect match with salted caramel ice cream. A plus point was the continued competitive pricing of the wine list, although we had to pour our own glasses, and overall we came away distinctly less effusive about this Sportsman experience.
Food + drink: 5
Quirky it certainly is and to begin with the distinction between pub and restaurant was confusing; initially the staff seemed slightly unprepared for service, although they soon got going, worked well together and were properly knowledgeable about the food. We were disappointed with the fact that dogs are allowed into the dining area, but in practice there was no problem, and we found solace in the remarkably friendly prices of the wine selection which added to the pleasure we took from two of the best dishes ever. A sizeable hint of what was to come was presented in the copious complement of nibbles comprising pork puffs, outstanding light pork scratchings with apple and mustard, excellent smoked herring, duck liver on toast, super pork in brick pastry with onion and shallot, and lamb on a biscuit base. Then masterpiece number one - the best oysters ever, two native and one rock, each dressed separately, one rhubarb, one chorizo, one roe and cucumber, all of them top class, tender, juicy, with that unmistakeable tang of the sea and beautifully balanced by a beurre blanc of perfect consistency. When I booked the tasting menu I offered to have my wife’s oysters, but she was quite rightly allowed her own starter, which proved to be salmon slices dressed in the same way as the oysters, and equally delicious. The voice of experience showed next as home-made bread and butter were served with Seasalter salt to allow the oyster experience to linger and be fully appreciated. Then came white crab meat with strips of carrot, a creamy hollandaise and a sprinkle of home-made curry powder, a dish remarkable for its freshness and the super taste combination, and this was followed by masterpiece number two - a mushroom and celeriac tart with a taste surprise of runny egg inside, a topping of mushroom foam and perfect pastry. This was just unctuous umami brilliance, and it was balanced and contrasted by the next dish, simple local slipsole in a seaweed butter - pure fish, perfectly cooked and needing no accompaniments to tart it up. The following fish dish continued the stellar quality of the cooking with superb braised brill in a wonderful smoked roe sauce set off to perfection by fresh tender leek. The main was excellent roast saddle of Kentish lamb basking in a proper selection of vegetables, cauliflower, romaresco, celeriac and crispy spring onion, which demonstrated the kitchen’s versatility once again. The very good palate cleanser was an imaginative pear and ginger ice lolly, which left us in just the right condition to attack the superb rhubarb soufflé, its texture the perfect basis for the ripple ice cream to invade it and form a perfect pair. This was a resounding fine-dining success and one that we will hope to repeat as soon as the promised on-site accommodation is completed.
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