I’ve been coming to the small Devonian port town of Dartmouth for 20 years. When the kids were still in scale with this dinky ville, we’d rock up for a few summer days to coarse fish for crab from the harbour wall, ride the vintage steam train to the beach at Paignton or take the river cruiser up the Dart to the crystal-dangling delights of Totnes. But the bulk of my time in Dartmouth has been spent alone and off season. Courtesy of friends who own a cottage wedged up one of the town’s vertiginous wynds, I am able to retreat there to write.
I say “there” but I mean “here”, as I’m in Dartmouth as I write, peering out through a rain-speckled windowpane. Off-season Dartmouth has all the queasy romance of a ghost Trumpton. At night, staring out over the town’s roofs, there is barely a light to be seen. By day, the streets are empty. The sailing boats in the harbour are battened down for the winter and the mournful ting-ting-ting! of nylon rigging smacking against aluminium masts follows the lonely scribe as, deranged by his creative imagination, he batters his way through the shades of long-gone yachties, their V-necked Pringle pullovers crumbling into dust like some bizarre outtake from Pirates of the Caribbean.
Needless to say, such a summer playground is well-stocked with eateries. Whether you favour a quick snack – Pasty Presto – or a murder mystery dinner – the Royal Castle Hotel – or a perverted gobble – Edward’s Fudge Pantry – the town has something for everybody. Even in November, most of these joints are still open, their lonely staff waiting for equally isolated diners. I’ve almost always eaten at Tsang’s, a tiny, booth-like Chinese restaurant that offers excellent fresh seafood dishes. I’ve been going to Tsang’s for so long that the waitress, Irene, has retired, leaving behind only a memento of her presence in the form of a faintly lubricious commemorative dish entitled “Irene Beef”.
At the urging of my friends, I tried a new gaff last night. RockFish has opened on the harbour side, the brain food of Mitch Tonks, impresario behind the FishWorks chain, which has three branches in London. The Tonks philosophy is summed up by a slogan on the tablecloths: “Fish so fresh, tomorrow’s is still in the sea”. You can’t argue with that, and the fish in RockFish is fresh, tasty and well cooked.
I had the signature battered cod and chips, which came with the near-obligatory Mandelson guacamole (mushy peas), but there was a special of sea bass encrusted with chilli that would’ve tempted me, were it not that herby encrustation is to contemporary fish as basting with entitlement is to David Cameron. The RockFish was, by off-season standards, heaving – I counted 14 comers and diners during my scant, hour-long feed. However, while the establishment cried out, “What’s not to like!” with every fibre of its being, I cavilled.
There was the dot-com typography – when restaurants begin to style themselves like email addresses, I’m virtually gone. Then there was the decor: a tunnel-like space with a steep internal pitch and a cladding of weather-worn, paint-daubed boards. I got the fish shtick: we were meant to be in a beach hut, hence our tableware, which consisted of flimsy cardboard boxes. Setting aside the sustainability of origami platters, there’s a reason, Mitch, why restaurant food is served on crockery, which is that it can be heated. Without the added warmth of a hot plate, the second law of thermodynamics had reduced my cod to an entropic condition long before it was finished. The chips – some cut as thick as Ukip – were stone cold.
Looking up at the sloping ceiling, where the tablecloth glyph of fish and slogan had been replicated in the knowing form of kids-drawings-really-done-by-adults, it occurred to me that RockFish was a good example of what the architectural critic Owen Hatherley has dubbed “pseudo-modernism”: design that, with its knowing incorporation of the gimcrack into the commercial environment, underpins the heretofore complacent neoliberalism of our era.
It was a biggish insight to be provoked by a fancy fish and chip shop – although by no means as big as some of my chips, one of which had the dimensions of a dildo in The Story of O.
I thought Edward ought to hear about it, but when I got round to his fudge pantry, it was sadly shuttered.