The Sportsman has been referred to as a grotty seaside boozer off the beaten path and a spot the trendy would more likely drive by. While there’s nothing wrong with its exterior, you might step inside and not see award-winning ambiance that normally goes with being crowned best by the National Restaurant Awards. It has an old school bar feel. There are mismatched wooden chairs and tables, and the kind of basic blackboard menu that’s usually accompanied with loud music, foot stomping and someone passed out on the floor. So it was far more than a small surprise to the restaurant industry, the elite and trendy, and even management of the restaurant itself when The Sportsman walked away with the 2016 Gastro Pub of the Year Award.
The owner, Stephen Harris could only say he was “gobsmacked.” The truth is the restaurant hasn’t gone unnoticed. For one, it is been been Michelin-starred eight times and won the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs Award. It was also listed as number two on the previous year’s Best Restaurant list. Still, Harris says, “We’ve always done quite well in these sort of lists but to be No 1 is something else.”
The restaurateur adds, “We’re basically two restaurants in one: a pub with a dining room that also does a tasting menu. The tasting menu is all about terroirs, this area, but otherwise it’s the standard starter, main and pud deal.”
Located in Whitstable in Kent, the Sportsman beat out sophisticated sounding eateries like the Le Gavroche, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and the Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. The restaurant’s “grotty” description actually comes from the restaurant’s founder, who has often referred to his eatery as a “grotty rundown pub by sea.” Harris says about this, “I called it that because I get fed up with people telling me it is grotty.
I figured if I tell them that first then they can’t be disappointed when they visit! The point is that some people think it’s a dump but I think it’s beautiful.”
The fact is Harris is far more concerned about producing a stellar product than ambiance. He is a self-taught chef and still does a tremendous amount of the cooking behind the scenes. At the tender age of 34, former history teach Harris gave up a finance career to get his hands dirty in the professional kitchen. A few years later, he opened the restaurant with his brother, Phil, not far from Whitstable, his home town. Harris was not thinking about being elite and drawing in the big crowds. In fact, due to the location, his customers were more likely to be local farmers and fishermen. But, with its reputation for fine service, that crowd would mingle with London’s top chefs and foodies.
Harris also makes it his business to promote local produce and keep it as organic as possible. The establishment keeps homemade ham hanging down in the cellar. They churn butter in-house. “I even make my own salt,” Harris says. They boil down seawater to extract salt. “But that’s more a hookline, a romantic gesture to Kent and the sea.”
Harris is also one of only a handful of City chefs to apply terroir cooking. Known more for its role in the wine industry, terroir is taking into account environmental factors for developing consumables. Components of terroir include types of soil, geomorphology, climate and other elements of the environment, including plants.
The Sportsman has a range of supple dishes, many of which are displayed on their Twitter feed. Highlights include poached rock oysters with Avurga caviar and pickled cucumber, and a Waterham Farm roasted chicken with truffle cream sauce and sausage. The locales love the pearly-white slipsole brushed with green-flecked seaweed butter.
Customers have filled up on Sportsman meals but always leave room for dessert, including pear purée, cream cheese ice cream, ginger and meringue cake crumbs, and a delicious jasmine tea junket with rosehip syrup and breakfast crunch.
Reactions to the award has not surprised anyone that’s regularly enjoyed the Sportsman. The editor of Restaurant Magazine, Stefan Chomka, said, “It might not look much from the outside, but The Sportsman is a magnificent place and Stephen Harris a well deserving recipient of this award. The Sportsman’s journey to the top of this list highlights the eclecticism of today’s eating out market and proves that you don’t need slick PR, cutting edge restaurant design or a flashy London postcode to run an establishment that’s best in class.”
The Sportsman was actually number two on the previous year’s list of best London restaurants. Baffafina Adelaide Street – the top prize winner in 2015 – traded places with the Sportsman, grabbing the number two spot. The top five was rounded out by The Ledbury, Hedone and Restaurant Nathan Outlaw. The Piquet received the Highest New Entry Award for making it into the top 10 with less than a year on its resume. Lake Road Kitchen in Ambleside won Highest Climber after leaping an impressive 70 places from last year’s list. Pierre Koffmann was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Philip Howard received the Chef’s Chef of the Year award. Som Sea won The One to Watch Award. Best Italian Award was given to The River Cafe. The Clove Club, Social Eating House and Noble Rot walked away with Service, Cocktail List and Wine List of the Year Awards, respectively.
The winners were decided by voting from over 100 leaders in London hospitality, including restaurateurs, chefs, critics and food writers.
While elated by the acknowledgement, Harris has no plans to let recognition give him reason to reevaluate his restaurant’s state. “For 15 years I’ve had people telling me what a rundown pub it is so I’m not going to get their hopes up.” In fact, Harris was on Twitter using his new award as a drink tray.