The Best Place to Eat Lobster Is a Beachside Garden Shed
Despite looking more like a garden shed than a restaurant, Hidden Hut cafe on England's Cornish coast serves some of the best (and biggest) lobsters of your life.
All photos by the author.
Perched on a grassy hill overlooking an isolated beach outside the quiet Cornwall village of Portscatho, Hidden Hut certainly lives up to its name.
Despite looking more like a garden shed than a restaurant, the cafe's feast nights, featuring local shellfish paella, "slow and low" smoked beef, and grilled sardines have become the stuff of local legend.
Visitors flock to taste the huge, communal meals cooked in the Hut's field kitchen that stands alongside the wooden building, completely exposed to the elements. Even with the sunniest weather in the UK, it's a risk.
"We were hit badly in the 2014 storms," head chef Simon Stallard tells me, as he shows me around the site. "We had to literally pick the hut up with a crane and move it backwards as the waves eroded the cliff edge."
When Stallard and partner Jem Glass took on the Hut back in April 2011, it was nothing more than an "inflatable dolphin shop," selling postcards and toys to beach-goers below.
"We bought a barbecue from Homebase and took a catch of fish from the local fishermen, putting a blackboard out on the road advertising a seafood barbecue," Glass tells me.
They cooked enough for 50, but 80 people turned up.
"So the next week, we bought fish for 100," she continues. "But 200 people came along!"
The pair were soon forced to implement a ticketing system to cope with demand for the feasts, which include one dish per night and ask guests to bring their own cutlery. Tonight's dinner is the popular Lobster Feast.
By the time the beach starts emptying, tables are laid out in front of the Hut. There's no space for individual dining, so diners grab what they can and get to know their neighbours. It's a seriously communal experience.
As the asado grill gets going, the field kitchen comes alive and lobsters sourced from a nearby fishing town are prepped for a grilling. With more than fifty being dished up during service, I ask Stallard how he sources the best ones.
His top tip? Go for the gnarly one covered in barnacles.
"Don't be put off, go for that one," he says. "It shows that it hasn't shed its shell recently and so the meat will be at its best."
After being sedated in chilled water and killed with a quick spike, the lobsters are boiled, refreshed, split, and cleaned before being thrown onto the grill, shell-side down.
Countless menus include words like "local" and "seasonal" but the Hut takes things back to base level—the lobsters are cooked on the land overlooking the exact patch of sea from which they were taken.
Back on the Hut's deck, a small crowd is gathered around Stallard's grill, sending Shapchats to anyone who'll look.
"Shell-side down stops any heat spoiling the meat and helps infuse the woody flavour," Stallard tells his audience, as he rakes the flaming wood under the charring lobster shells. "Wood is better than coal if you're hoping for a smoky tang."
Meanwhile, Dan Wilson, a former chef at a high-end Bristol restaurant, is busy prepping the stations for tonight's meal.
"Cooking mackerel overlooking the sea where it was caught or beef that grazed on the pastures just behind—it gives us a visceral pleasure you just don't get from conventional indoor kitchens," he tells me.
The rest of the Hut team share a similar vision, as well as the desire to escape the often thankless working environment of many conventional restaurants. And as the sun begins to set over the quiet Cornish beach—away from 100-hour weeks and cramped kitchens—it's not hard to see the attraction.
As corks start popping, Gerry, an old boy from the village, leans over the service counter to pick up lobster and sides in a box to go.
"His wife has just had a hip replacement so she's bed-bound," Glass explains. "He can't cook for shit so we let him have takeaways."
This informal yet refined approach to dining seems to be the making of the Hut's success. When you bring your own booze and cutlery, your evening tends to take whatever shape you want it to. There's no pretence, no wine list, and no simulation of an "on trend" experience.
"It's not about following a magazine or creating something fake," says Glass. "This is simply lobster by the sea, no gimmicks."
Kim Aamot, who has travelled to the Cornish coast from Oslo, is a fan of this simple dining style.
"I've eaten all over the world in some of the best restaurants but this was the one I had most difficulty booking," she says, encouraging me to sip what turns out to be Norwegian aquavit.
Service quickly gets going, with lobsters, chips, and salad flying out of the kitchen and onto the plates of the queuing diners. It's the best canteen supper you've ever seen.
While the lobster meat is tender and deftly accompanied by homemade spicy ketchup and garlic aioli, conversation soon turns to the gargantuan size of the crustaceans' claws.
"They're basically donkeys," someone shouts, prompting a laugh from everyone in earshot.
"Who wants to pay three or four times as much for the same lobster, just to have fancy chinaware and waiters interrupting your meal?" diner Rob Nettletons tells me as we hammer away at our shells. "The guys here have nailed it."
The Hut may seem unusual in its reimagining of the lobster as a food of the people, but for years, the crustacean was considered an inferior dish, fed to widows, orphans, and prisoners. Historians have even found evidence in colonial-era Massachusetts of workers demanding that "their contracts state that they would not be forced to eat lobster more than three times a week."
Eating freshly grilled lobster with a sea view is by no means slumming it, but at a reasonable £25 for tonight's dinner, the Hut is going some way in taking lobster back to its roots.
"We love the fact that the postman can sit and eat lobster next to a billionaire flown in on a chopper," Glass tells me, as we sit with the couple's young son. "The cans of Stella and homemade moonshine lined up next to bottles of vintage champagne—that's what we're all about!"