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Restaurant Reviews by Matt & Cat

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Violet's 1940's Cafe

Has anyone opened a café recently that isn't vintage-themed? Is there actually any room in the market for a place where you can just eat a cheese sandwich and not have to be reminded of the joys of rationing, ersatz coffee and lend-lease bacon? Well, of course the answer is yes, and there are plenty. But 1940s nostalgia is most definitely the thing these days, so it is perhaps not surprising that wartime décor is to today's cafés as 1950s American diner-style was to those of the 1990s.

Violet's 1940's Café

Violet's 1940's café has perhaps more of a justification for this theme than some others as it is set in the heart of Northwood's Conflict History and Remembrance Museum: C.H.A.R.M. This museum is in the process of being assembled, and at the moment its acronym can only be ironic. Visually, the outside of the museum is a windswept yard surrounded by blank industrial units, an array of abandoned caravans and a smattering of military vehicles in various states of restoration. The vehicles are actually a pretty interesting spectacle, but they provide a curious backdrop to lunch.

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The Royal Hotel, Ventnor: Afternoon tea

A Frequently Asked Question of Matt and Cat is 'are you guys really fat?'. Another question in the top ten would be 'where's the best place to eat?'. That question is much harder to answer than the first (which, by the way, is dodged by the statement 'Cat is not a guy').

The best place on the Island to eat depends on many factors: budget, tastes, company and occasion. For example, Matt and Cat would not recommend the same venue to a lively hen night (Moo Cow) as to a family on a budget looking for somewhere to celebrate an elderly lady's birthday (Appley Manor). It should go without saying that a children's party venue has different requirements to a romantic supper for two.

Ahh, a romantic supper for two... As it happens Love is in the Air (according to Clintons), as this review was written just before St Valentine's Day. Militant singletons may sneer at this contrived celebration of love and romance, yet it still must be one of the busiest days in the restaurant calendar. As Dry January putters to a welcome end and pay day has sorted out the worst of the Christmas overspend, people are emerging from their slankets, blinking into the light and going out for dinner.

Matt and Cat, by dint of this website, have enjoyed many, MANY dinners for two and have been making personal Valentine supper recommendations for weeks now, via Twitter, Facebook, emails and even word of mouth. This review was intended to be of the acme of all dinners, where the boat is well and truly pushed out to impress a loved one (or soon-to-be loved one if the protagonist plays his/her cards right). However, the Royal Hotel was booked up for dinner so, M&C decided to have afternoon tea there instead.

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The Waterfront Inn, Shanklin

For a county with nearly seventy miles of coastline, there are surprisingly few venues with a sea view. Pretty much the whole of the south west coastline has nowhere punters can enjoy a bite to eat and a glass of something stimulating while contemplating the English Channel. Even the Island's northern shores have a dearth of coastal venues apart from a few isolated cafes and a prestigious hotel here and there.

The Waterfront Inn, Shanklin

If you want a guaranteed sight of the sea while you enjoy your supper you're best off heading eastside. In the olden days, Sandown and Shanklin were neighbouring resorts but the marketeers have conflated and rebranded the Island's favourite bucket-and-spade coastline as The Bay. Despite this arguably misguided attempt to put the sizzle in these venerable resorts' sausage, the beaches remain beautifully sandy and, sure as eggs is eggs, the tide continues to ebb and flow.

Like Sandown, Shanklin is a town of several parts - a high street elevated from the shore and an esplanade with typical seaside amenities and hotels. Shanklin also has the picturesque Old Village and the wonderful Chine, not to mention its very own Elvis Presley memorial.

Matt and Cat caught up with some old colleagues in the Waterfront Inn. With the lights of distant boats twinkling on the horizon, M&C and friends had dinner and a good old gossip. The Waterfront Inn has recently had a change of management. Has anything else altered in this popular eatery?

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Happy Chef, Ryde

Remember those days when pubs were just places where we went to drink? A yellowing venue with a dart board, as much passive smoking as your heart and lungs could bear and, on his stool, a resident 'old boy'. The only pub grub was a packet of salted peanuts tugged from a card display, behind which was a picture of tousle-haired woman in a skimpy bikini.

Small breakfast

If you search far enough it is still possible to find a good old-fashioned pub. Similarly, there are still some greasy spoon cafés around. This cousin of the boozer is often found in the vicinity of light industry, as evidenced by Matt and Cat's choices, Richies Diner and Tumblers. In their own manor, the rather hyperbolically-named Monkton Village, is the Happy Chef.

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Mrs Jones Tea Depot

There's a joke that's made on the Isle of Wight every March when the clocks change, which is: "Don't forget to put your clock forward - to 1952". Well, in East Cowes there's at least one person whose clock resolutely stopped somewhen in the mid-1940s.

Mrs Jones Tea Depot

In their first review of Mrs Jones Tea Depot, M&C made reference to the reality of life in the war years, as experienced by Cat's grandparents. It was pretty bleak existence, by Madge and Fred's reckoning. So, this time, Matt and Cat instead concentrate on the joy of life in the 1940s, as seen through the rose-tinted spectacles of vintage revivalists. An age of everyone knowing their neighbours, home baking and cheerful men in uniform. These homelier aspects are abundant in Mrs Jones' Tea Depot: a brace of squashy floral armchairs positioned either side of a fire, a mirrored hall stand decorated with veiled hats, and teapots kept warm under knitted cosies. You could almost hear the uplifting crackle of 'Workers' Playtime' on the Home Service.

Mrs Jones has cranked the vintage dial up to eleven - transforming the cafe's interior into your granny's mid-twentieth century parlour. Every surface both horizontal and vertical is adorned with topical artefacts. Photos of moustached men and laughing young women, propaganda posters, and mirrors suspended from chains steal focus as one's eyes dart about the room.

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64 Degrees, Brighton

On a recent trip to Brighton, M&C were determined to try out as much interesting grub as the city had to offer.

64 Degrees, Brighton

Street food, pre-industrial fodder and neo-tapas were all on their hit list. At the time of their visit, Brighton's 64° was tipped to get a Michelin star (edit: alas not this time but it surely can't be long. However, Michelin saw fit to award its new Bib Gourmand rating in 2014). Because of its hot reputation M&C made every effort to get their feet in the door of this newish venue. Clearly exceedingly popular, Matt and Cat leapt at the chance to take the last remaining booking of the weekend - a six-thirty slot that presumably The Beautiful People thought unfashionably early. Lucky for M&C then.

64° had garnered some impressive column inches in the nationals and, when undertaking their research, Matt and Cat sat open-mouthed at the prospect of "mash that elevates the potato to hero status", "the most exciting thing to hit Brighton for years", and "astonishingly good tongue as you've never had it before". The food and the venue seemed determinedly unconventional - so was it to be playful and delicious fun, or a pile of tripe?

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The Man in the Moon, Newport

The J D Wetherspoon chain is to pubs what Lidl is to supermarkets. Once decried, the opening of a Spoons was seen as part of the erosion of the traditional English town pub; driving down standards and cheapening neighbourhoods. These days, the sneerers have gone very quiet. Like Lidl and stablemate Aldi, the middle classes have learnt to love the rock-bottom prices and entirely predictable offerings.

The Man in the Moon, Newport

The opening of the Man in the Moon pub is a case in point. Newport's second Wetherspoon's opened in spring 2014 in what had been for years a decaying former church, to almost universal acclaim. At one point demolition seemed a likely outcome for the old church. But no - along came J D Wetherspoon and performed a spectacularly sensitive conversion on the building, making it one of the most characterful and well-appointed venues in the town. And it was here that Matt and Cat were invited to attend a works Christmas dinner - for once, the choice of dining venue was not in their hands. Paying their deposits and choosing from the menu weeks in advance, they duly joined merry colleagues from the corporate salt mine. Clad in Christmas jumpers and novelty hats they tottered along to see what Wetherspoon's had to offer by way of a festive meal.

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Winter Gardens, Ventnor

It should never have happened. Only a few years ago the Hambrough Group was sailing unassailably high on the choppy waters of fortune. A Michelin star safely on the wall, expansion was in the air as the Pond Cafe and other properties came successfully under the wing of this behemoth. Gossip circulated about the latest places to be 'Hambroughed'. Buoyed by this investment in the town, Ventnor sprouted quality food venues on every corner.

Winter Gardens, Ventnor

And now? And now it's come to this. The Hambrough is a bed and breakfast. The Pond is closed. Staff come and go like buses and there's only one Hambrough Group venue left that's actually open and serving dinners - the Winter Gardens. This was one of the last acquisitions of the group, and by far the most controversial. It has taken years to reopen the bar and restaurant, and apparently a lot of work has been necessary to get to that stage. The promised hotel and conference centre is yet to come forth. It's hard not to see this aging seafront edifice as an albatross that has dragged a once prosperous business group into an alarming slump. But has it? It's a location that looks as though it couldn't fail. With the best weather in England and a huge terrace overlooking what is arguably the finest sea view on the Isle of Wight, surely this will be a visitor magnet? Well, maybe focussing on the Winter Gardens will turn out to be the canniest thing that the Hambrough Group has ever done. After all, to say they have surprised us before is an understatement. Nay-sayers are queueing up to pick nits, but nobody should underestimate the drive to succeed that has brought plaudits to the Hambrough in the past. If the same trick can be pulled off at the Winter Gardens the rewards for the owners, for Ventnor and for the Island will be even greater.

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