Shelter Hall in Brighton feels like an entirely new concept in dining: a pleasurable food-hall experience.
No, come back; I’m not making it up. Shelter Hall operates out of a rather beautiful seafront building, built in 1888, to allow promenaders to shelter from the rain. After years of neglect, then some serious restoration, it is now a well-administered home to seven kitchens and two bars, brimming with helpful, smiling staff who will bring plates of Neapolitan pizza and Vietnamese-inspired bao to your seaview table.
Food halls are not usually like this. Most were incredibly good ideas at the planning stage, but when you’re there as a customer, just one woman in search of a good poke bowl and a kombucha, the wheels fall off dramatically. There are the halls that demand you order by app, but their wifi can’t cope with downloading it or with taking card payments. Then the apps that demand you order each dish from separate kitchens in different transactions, adding a tip each time “for service” (spoiler: there is no service – you collect these dishes yourself). And then there are those halls that give out red flashing buzzers, which you stare at tensely as if you’ve been given a presidential briefcase with nuclear launch codes. Then, when the alarm sounds, you rush up to get your £13 slice of sourdough pizza and someone steals your table. It’s the future and we’re loving it!
At Shelter Hall, not only do they have fast wifi, working apps and actual staff bringing your food, they’ve gone back to basics and installed a reception desk with bright, efficient people allotting tables, explaining the ordering rules and pointing out the way to the toilets. Terribly old-fashioned, I know, but it works. On a beautiful sunny Sunday lunchtime in July we were seated in an upstairs balcony area, overlooking the coast, with a semi-apology that all the tables downstairs were reserved. To me, these are the best seats in the house.
Of course, none of this matters if the food is lacklustre. Shelter Hall is in a sweet spot right now, because the quality of the vendors is strong. Bross Bagels – one of my favourite Edinburgh snack stops – has taken root in Brighton for the summer, serving their legendary Big Bross, a Montreal-style bagel stuffed with streaky bacon, fried eggs, smoked applewood cheese, grilled tomato and fries. Zest by Hanoi Kitchen is serving some fantastic miso-soaked aubergine bao buns, bowls of wobbly, chunky pan-fried king prawn gyoza and very good banh mi. They also make a rich king prawn coconut curry served with steamed rice and their own house pickles.
When I visited, Jay Morjaria from BBC’s Million Pound Menu was showcasing Tiger and Rabbit, his Korean-inspired concept, serving generous sharing plates of barbecue beef with lettuce to wrap, and sides of kimchi and punchy ssamjang aioli. But as delicious as all of this was, he appears to have moved on from Shelter Hall, meaning you’ll have to try the new Santa Monica-influenced kitchen Sol instead, which serves ceviche, caesar salads, calamari and truffle fries. Santa Monica really does have a dining vibe all of its own, so it’s a delight to see chefs paying tribute to this.
If you’re in search of something sweet, I must recommend the dessert section from Amalfi, who push themselves as a Neapolitan-style pizza and pasta kitchen, but offer a wildly decadent line in sweet stuff if you look more closely. Yes, there’s a Nutella pizza and a pistachio tortino, but don’t be distracted by this; the pure joy is in the crisp, fresh cannolo pastry they pipe full of sweet ricotta and chocolate chips. Chocolate and cheese was never a combination I felt my life lacked until this fine Sunday in Shelter Hall; now I can’t live without it. The tiramisu is also outstanding: boozy and sating. We ordered one to be polite, and then quickly became cross with each other for hogging it.
The food, with each delivery by a chipper server, continued to be far better than a food hall ever tends to be. Oh, they will usually promise the earth. Then the plates arrive, of over-cooked, will-this-do sludge at vastly inflated prices, and I’m left with a strong feeling I’ve been cheated, like Sex Pistol John Lydon at the Winterland in San Francisco. But we left Shelter Hall jubilant, £60 down for lunch for three people with drinks, then bumbled off for a go on the pier-end slot machines. Life is odd right now, but it throws up real surprises.
Shelter Hall, Kings Road Arches, Brighton BN1 1NB. email@example.com, 07903 284511. Open all week 9am-11pm (midnight Fri and Sat, 10pm Sun). From about £6 a head, plus drinks and service.