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Brighton Beach Memoir

Sunset often finds Terry and me dining with my sister Shelagh—a Brighton resident of long standing and the reason the widowed Terry moved here from Belfast five years ago —at a fab place called Al Fresco. This reliable Italian joint is located in and around what appears to be a converted Art Deco lifeguard station. Dangling as it does over the pebbled beach, Al Fresco has staggering views of the world's largest kinetic art installation. I refer to the blackened and crumbling remains of the grand old West Pier. After almost 150 years of war, fire, and salt air, this charred and collapsing skeleton now resembles a massive Louise Bourgeois crustacean emerging from the sea. Portions of it tend to drop off in front of your very eyes while you're enjoying a bit of local bream. Ominous, much photographed clouds of swirling starlings add to the Gothic visuals.

On my most recent visit we ate at Blanch House, a preposterously cool boutique hotel in Kemp Town. Located near the other, nondisintegrating pier, Kemp Town is the Williamsburg/SoHo/Chelsea of Brighton. This is the kind of neighborhood where it's not unusual to see a gay woman walking a dog with one hand and rolling her own cigarette with the other, or a tranny in full sequined regalia bursting proudly out of a doorway. My sister lived in Kemp Town for many years, above a gay disco called the Zanzibar. (Whenever I hear the throb of a distant nightclub I think of those long nights spent above the pounding Zanzibar, wondering whether I would die or go insane or both.) The Blanch House bar is chock-full of Wallpaper–reading media types. These are the monied young moderns who have fled London in recent years, driving up real estate prices and making Brighton one of the top 10 most expensive places to live in the U.K., with residential properties running to $1,700 a square foot. The Blanch House restaurant is top-notch. The service is incredible and the all-white Clockwork Orange décor—hilariously incongruous in the context of the rest of the town—reeks of contemporary Las Vegas. The cuisine is a tad contrived in that wacky Vegas-y way, causing Terry to morph into Lady Bracknell, as in "Cardamom fritters?" "Earl Grey ice cream?" "A handbag?"

For a more down-to-earth repast, head to the Forager. "The ingredients are foraged from hedge-rows," I had made the mistake of telling Terry before our first visit. "I'm not eating badger roadkill with boiled privet," he had said. This humble gastropub serves contemporized, organic-y versions of English Sunday lunch—they build it all up into a wobbly Gordon Ramsay tower, with a Yorkshire pudding on the side—in an authentic environment. The foraged components are (much to Terry's relief that day) limited to things like fungi and dandelions. Unlike many gastropubs, this one has made a conscious effort not to lose its original pubbiness: housewives in halter tops showing off their Tenerife tans chat for hours about God knows what with blokes with pipes and dogs. Best news of all: by the time you read this, the new smoking ban will be in effect and you, dear reader, will not emerge from the Forager, as I did, smelling like a smoked kipper.

While Terry is a Forager fan, my favorite eatery is the Gallery Café at the Brighton Museum. Yes, they do a lovely organic chicken sandwich, but the real purpose of coming here is to check out the Moorish-inspired interior and the costume and art exhibits, which are invariably fabulous and, most importantly, rather minuscule. (Large museums always leave me feeling ignorant and overwhelmed.) After a quick skip around this idiosyncratic permanent collection—Alma-Tadema to Frank Stella—I feel like a total genius. And I still have plenty of energy left to attack the Royal Pavilion, which is right next door.

The Royal Pavilion is so totally insane—Queen Victoria thought it was unsuitable and was always trying to sell it to the town—that it makes every other monument in the world, from Neuschwanstein to Versailles, look pedestrian and boring. It is quite simply the most over-the-top publicly accessible building there is. Attempting to describe this orgy of hallucinogenic chinoiserie and exoticism is a complete waste of time.  Just go!

History tells us that the Prince Regent spent so much time lolling around the Pavilion and amusing his bouche that he became hideously fat. He relied on massive amounts of corsetry to maintain even the suggestion of a normal shape. The same would happen to me in Brighton if I did not jog. To offset the gastronomical indulgences I take a long run every day along the Esplanade. There are two trails to choose from: I call them the Cate Blanchett and the Heather Mills. The Cate Blanchett involves running—or walking or biking or even skipping—east as far as the notorious nudist beach and the Brighton Marina. Cate Blanchett's former house—I'm not exactly sure which one it is, but I know it's there somewhere because it was pictured in the tabloids when a crane was delivering a massive marble bathtub through her front window a couple of years back—is located in one of the beautiful crescents on your left. The Heather Mills leads west, past the crumbling West Pier and miles and miles of gorgeous architecture until you reach a cluster of white houses with direct beach access and can run no farther. You are now at the Malibu of Brighton, the former home of former happy couple Sir Paul McCartney and Heather "Dancing with the Stars" Mills McCartney. Heather still spends time in Brighton and is frequently spotted riding a bicycle along the Esplanade. (One of the great pleasures of visiting Brighton is getting to say the word esplanade over and over again.)


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