“The skinheads had come to Margate to fight,” wrote Paul Theroux in The Kingdom by the Sea. His trip around the English coast in 1982 started in Margate, but he didn’t stay there long. “They gathered across the boardwalk from an amusement arcade called Dreamland.” Eliot de Theroux’s inspired narrative is dark; a sad window into Thatcher’s Britain and the decline of its once prosperous coastline.
On the surface, Margate is unchanged: Deco Dreamland and brutalist Arlington House still dominate the high street; the Georgian confusion of the old town adds a chipped charm. It was the location of Sam Mendes’ new 1980s film, Empire of Light (out this week). “Margate really lends itself to being a cinematic play,” says production designer Mark Tildesley. “It’s superbly contained – almost like a movie studio backlot.”
Centered on a majestic but struggling cinema (shot in Dreamland’s Grade II listed auditorium), the film calls on Margate and her former skinheads to immerse us in the recession and racism of the era. But in the middle of the grain, there are romantic scenes that display the lineaments of the city. You can ride the wave of nostalgia with a new Empire of Light downloadable walking tour, starting with Dreamland’s vintage theme park and kitschy rollercoaster (both featured in the movie).
The site’s £25million renovation in 2017 confirmed that Margate’s revival would endure. Now, with the help of the movie, 2023 seems to be the city of annus mirabilis. TimeOut has also done its part by declaring Cliftonville – which adjoins the Old Town – the coolest area in the UK. As a local, I see bookmakers and junk shops being swapped for brunches, LGBTQ+ event spaces, and bijou art galleries at a pace.
Matthew Slotover, founder of Frieze art fair and new chairman of Turner Contemporary, says Margate is now one of the UK’s premier art destinations. Under the new management of Clarrie Wallis (ex-Tate curator), the Turner will be the first UK venue to host Sonia Boyce’s Feeling Her Way, from February 4 to May 8. Boyce’s installation – which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale last year – will immerse visitors in the sound of five pioneering black singers.
“Artists are leaving Brooklyn to be here!” says Robert Diament, director of the Carl Freedman Gallery and co-host of the popular Talk Art podcast. “Margate is going international.”
In February, the gallery will welcome abstract painter Daisy Parris, “who is making waves in the United States”. From April to June, photographer Ronan Mckenzie will be hosting BMW-supported To be Held – interactive workshops, listening parties and one-of-a-kind installations from his selection of aspiring black British and international artists.
Then, take a short walk down Northdown Road in Cliftonville to artist Lindsey Mendick’s new non-profit gallery, Quench. “Turner’s Naughty Little Sister,” as Mendick calls it, features ambitious works by up-and-coming artists and is open Friday through Sunday. Nearby, Hotel Michele has taken over what was once a charity shop to provide a “shared space for exhibitions, workshops and individually curated events”. Tracey Emin’s Art School will also open in February. There will be concerts in its event space and 14 studios will host resident artists.
Where the art led, the food followed. Olivia Colman, who stars in Empire of Light, praised Margate for her “three amazing restaurants”. In my opinion, there are at least six, starting with the brand new Fort Road Hotel, run by River Café alumnus Daisy Cecil. Traditional English dishes – inspired by ‘old-fashioned food writers’ like the late Jane Grigson of the Observer – are offered at reasonable prices, in a grown-up atmosphere (terracotta floors, sharp service). Diament swears by the breakfast, of which “nobody knows anything yet”. There’s also a roof, for those famous Turneresque skies.
“I see Margate as a sort of Bruton-on-Sea; there’s such a concentration of restaurants that do great food,” says Cecil. Her favorite place to eat is Dive, a small taqueria on the harbor arm with jaw-dropping margaritas. A few doors down is Sargasso – a favorite of the Mendes film crew – where “delicious good” Italian small plates are shot by the crew behind Brawn. Also on the arm, starter bakery Staple Stores is the place for Insta-porn cruffins filled with coulis and custard. Dive has more places in the new Selina co-work hotel in Cliftonville (Friday and Saturday nights only), right next to the Libertines-owned Albion Rooms. Both are welcome openings in a city with too few hotel beds.
Back on Northdown Road, the Parisian wine bar and future restaurant Sète has just opened, thanks to the team behind the beleaguered Barletta (formerly based in the Turner, it was forced to close after being scammed banking). English and European wines, mostly from female winemakers, pair with pretty (but pricey) small plates. Always hungry? Grab a bento box from Mori Mori. Or head to Dolma Bar, which is back with its Balkan bites after a stint at Shoreditch House.
If you can get a table, Margate’s Royal Restaurant – Angela’s, which specializes in seafood; Italian Bottega Caruso – are reasons to travel here in their own right. You can rest at boutique n°42 (formerly Sands Hotel, opening in the spring), a few meters from both. But above all, don’t miss the first and only crab museum in Europe, which opened its doors last year. Science, comedy and philosophy collide in a peculiar and satisfying experience. Pub quiz gold and not a skinhead in sight. Someone should tell Paul.