Britain has many attractions, but for Australian visitors its seaside resorts are seldom counted among them. They conjure up images of Victorian-era dowdiness, chilly entertainment piers and hobble-inducing pebble beaches.
Ten years ago, you might have said the same about Brighton, on the south coast, but no longer. The once decaying English Channel town has rediscovered its mojo and buzzes with newfound energy and interesting eateries.
The reason? Commuters pushed out of expensive London realised Brighton was only an hour away by train, and a short hop from Gatwick Airport. Cafes and quirky fashion boutiques sprang up to cater to a more youthful population.
The town became arty, its theatres revived and the Royal Pavilion, once considered a kitschy joke palace, has become recognised as a fine example of romantic movement architecture.
The Royal Pavilion – a hybrid oriental fantasy of leering dragons, Moorish domes and almost burlesque decor – first put Brighton on the map. It was built as a seaside retreat by the Prince Regent (future King George IV) and turned the town into a posh, rather louche Georgian seaside getaway where visitors took the waters between scandalous affairs. Eventually the beach brigade moved on to warmer France, Queen Victoria was unamused, and Brighton was left only with tawdry fun fairs and disapproving retirees.
Now another swing of fashion's pendulum has revived Brighton's fortunes while leaving its heritage intact. Much of physical Regency Brighton lingers. There are streets of stuccoed houses with bow windows and elegant Georgian proportions.
The Pump House remains, as does the house of long-time royal mistress Maria Fitzherbert, now with a new lease on life as the YMCA. Nearby, The Cricketers hotel has a Regency facade. The interior is cluttered with wonderful historical knick-knackery, and the grub (smoked ham hock, gin-cured salmon) is a first indication that Brighton delivers a lively food scene.
The Cricketers sits on the edge of The Lanes, an area of Georgian-era fishermen's cottages laid out along huddled medieval alleys. It's dense with interesting eateries, including 64 Degrees, which specialises in small bites presented with almost Japanese minimalism in beautiful plates and bowls. It's intricate, stylish cooking from chef Michael Bremner, and magnificently tasty: salmon with watermelon, chicken wings marinated in kimchi, brill with grapefruit and chilli.
Food for Friends, which began as a 1980s hippy hangout, has been transformed into a contemporary cafe by its Iranian-born owner. It remains vegetarian, but influences now range far and wide. Salads have explosions of flavour from scattered pomegranate seeds and zaatar dressing. Generous shared plates include the likes of haloumi bites, zucchini kofta with coconut tzatziki, and pickled turmeric cauliflower.
Also in The Lanes, oyster and champagne bar Riddle & Finns looks old-fashioned – think red-tiled floors, marble tables and walls hung with old photos of glum fishermen hauling nets – yet is anything but. Its menu roams the globe, offering Singapore chilli crab, English fish pie, clam chowder and bouillabaisse, all cooked without much fuss, leaving quality ingredients to shine through.
You'd expect a seaside resort to offer seafood, and a newly hip destination to up the ante from vinegar-soaked fish and chips. Brighton delivers. If you're looking for a classic seafood menu selection, you can't go wrong at English's of Brighton., It's been serving seafood in the same location for 150 years, as you'll be reminded by the Edwardian-style decor. You can get local with potted shrimps or Dover sole, or lean towards France with souffled omelette filled with smoked haddock, or scallops St Jacques.
Wander from The Lanes into Gardner Street, where a cinema is topped by giant red-and-white striped cancan legs, one of which has kicked a black shoe onto the adjacent roof. This district is North Laine, and those romping Regency weekenders would be pleased by its raffish liveliness.
Kensington Street is nicknamed Graffiti Alley for its street art, the colourful face of Brighton's newfound, youthful edginess. You'll find great street art everywhere in this district: anti-war cartoons, pop icons, a famous Banksy depicting two policemen pashing, and a giraffe straight from a Georgian-era etching.
Chain stores are verboten and alternative shops encouraged in The Lanes. You can get pierced, buy organic coffee, browse for native American jewellery and investigate a vegan shoe designer ("a treat for your feet if you don't eat meat"). Good restaurant picks include The Chilli Pickle for Indian, La Choza for Mexican, and Pompoko for Japanese that has locals queuing out the door.
For an elegant show of Regency architecture, stray into Kemptown. The place to dine here is Pike & Pine, which showcases the intricate and beautifully presented plates of formerly Michelin-awarded chef Matt Gillan. Unexpectedly glorious matchings include poached trout with ox tongue, and duck leg with peanut butter and pineapple. If you sit at the long marble counter you can watch the chefs putting final touches to the artfully arranged plates.
As you head back into town towards the waterfront, Terra a Terre is another of Brighton's long-established vegetarian restaurants. The colourful, inventive dishes are all up-to-date, however. They don't just look sensational but pack an explosion of flavours to confound anyone who persists in thinking meatless cuisine is both bland and beige. Polenta puddings stuffed with smoked tomato and mushrooms are topped with horseradish and cranberry beads. An Indian-inspired take on roesti is packed with spice and served with tandoori haloumi and coconut raita.
Bistro at Hotel du Vin, with its breezy blue decor and scrubbed wooden floors, looks as if it has been teleported in from New England. It's notable for its lengthy wine menu and classic French bistro dishes, rejigged: the onion soup is topped with pork crackling and apple sauce, the rabbit pâté studded with guindilla chillies.
On the waterfront itself, The Salt Room belies its location inside a chain hotel, and its rather bare interior and jeans-clad waiters, by being one of Brighton's best restaurants. Langoustines grilled in their shells take on a smoky charcoal flavour, the soup dense with chunks of mackerel and octopus is fabulous, and the steaks would satisfy even a Regency glutton.
A dessert plate of uber-chic doughnuts, ice-cream and fairy floss is a nod to old-time Brighton Pier across the street. Yet in its Willy Wonka show of masterful contemporary kitchen technique, it's also a symbol of how much Brighton's food scene – and the town itself – has been transformed. Enough, even, to tempt an Australian to an English pebble beach.
The Cricketers, cricketersbrighton.co.uk
64 Degrees, 64degrees.co.uk
Food for Friends, foodforfriends.com
Riddle & Finns, riddleandfinns.co.uk
English's of Brighton, englishs.co.uk
The Chilli Pickle, thechillipickle.com
La Choza, lachoza.co.uk
Pike & Pine, pikeandpine.co.uk
Terra a Terre, terreaterre.co.uk
Bistro at Hotel du Vin, hotelduvin.com
The Salt Room, saltroom-restaurant.co.uk
Cathay Pacific flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Hong Kong with onward daily connections to London. Brighton is 90 minutes south. See cathaypacific.com.au.
Hotel Una has 19 individually styled rooms in an updated terrace house near Brighton's seafront. See hotel-una.co.uk.
Brian Johnston was a guest of Visit Britain.