Southend. Previously a tired Essex outpost with a bedraggled high street, bursting with discount chain shops and sports stores. So close to London, a history of Victorian stay-cation grandeur, and so much lost potential.
Enter Essex University’s Southend Campus, a brand spanking new state of the art library, an influx of council investment in the seafront (bar a few very sorry looking palm trees, which would clearly feel far more at home in the heat of the Algarve), and a raising of the standard of bars and restaurants in the town.
Nowhere has a more stark difference been seen than in the Ocean Beach Café. Formerly a run-down public toilet block, and a landmark past which the ten year old me used to ride my bike, sleeve across nose and mouth to protect from the stench that emanated from within.
Entering Ocean Beach now feels a million miles from the hole that existed. The building still contains some features of the old loo block, as a nod to its heritage, but now, upon entering, I am greeted with a beautifully cool cream and turquoise Lambretta scooter, purely as décor (shame, I’d really love to borrow it for a quick buzz up and down the seafront), and a spik and span immaculately clean bar area, with all the coffee, beers and cocktails you could shake a plastic stirrer at.
Staff are fabulously friendly and make an effort to recognise their regulars, without over-stepping the “friendliness line”. Families are welcomed, and high chairs are set up the minute the staff notice a small child has come in. The children’s menu is delightful – although be warned that the portion sizes mean that as a parent you will be polishing off half their food, in addition to your own lunch. Forget the orange food that is usually on the menu for children. Here your little ones will feast on fresh fish and seafood. Stunning fish goujons that you will be only too pleased to finish once your darling has had their fill.
There’s a decking area over the beach, and if you like the feeling of the wind in your hair you can even enjoy a cold glass of wine at one of their tables on the sand.
Sitting with the sun streaming in through the window on the decking, with gentle piano music humming in the background, watching the boats bobbing around Thorpe Bay, you could be forgiven for having moments feeling as though you’re on a Caribbean island, not in a blingy Essex seaside town.
Ocean Beach does sell takeaway coffee, which I like to take down by the sea. The coffee’s good but the takeaway cups are a bit small. Get two (I need all the caffeine I can get when chasing small children around the beach).
If you’re taking a brisk walk along Southend seafront and are caught short, well, you can still pop into the public loos, now furnished with pot plants, smart mirrors and handsoap – but who wouldn’t also stop and grab a quick latte while they’re there?