How Harbor Street in Ramsgate is transforming with new restaurants, cafes and shops
A Kentish town once ravaged by crime and shuttered shops is fighting back with food, art and culture.
Gerry Warren visits from Ramsgate Historic Harbor Street to see how new businesses are transforming it into one of the county’s most vibrant places…
Ramsgate Royal Harbor is the jewel of the south coast with a seafront parade that has flourished with new restaurants, cafes and shops.
But for many years the same could not have been said of the main road, a few meters away, which leads down to the sea from the town centre.
Harbor Street has long been a desolate, depressing sight with empty premises and neglected, dilapidated buildings – completely at odds with the bustling Regency waterfront, which is also home to Britain’s biggest Wetherspoons.
But that’s changing and it’s fast becoming one of the fastest growing places in the county, with the help of exciting business launches and huge new investments, including government heritage grants that are transforming the region.
The number of builders’ vehicles cluttering the pedestrian street confirms the activity as contractors work to transform the upper floors into apartments while redeveloping the commercial areas on the ground floor.
And that can’t come a moment too soon for a city that just months ago was making headlines for all the wrong reasons, including violent crime.
A series of late-night fights and assaults even sparked a petition in January demanding action – including a review of late-night drinking permits.
But the city’s mayor, Cllr Raushan Ara, believes Ramsgate is no worse than any other city and says the latest statistics show crime is down.
Mayor of Ramsgate Cllr Raushan Ara explains how Harbor Street is up
She is passionate about improving her reputation and is particularly familiar with Harbor Street having opened her family tandoori restaurant there in 1988.
“I think all downtown areas have suffered from empty stores and crime, but there are certainly some exciting things happening here now,” she said.
“Over the past week, I’ve opened two new businesses and I’m getting a lot of requests from people wanting space.
“Our Port Royal is the only one with such a designation in the country and it is magnificent. We must maximize its potential to attract visitors.
“It is therefore vital that Harbor Street is attractive and attracts people to the city.
“I feel very positive and things are changing so fast it’s almost beyond my belief.
“There is definitely a growing sense of confidence in the city and particularly here on Harbor Street where the emerging theme is food, art and culture.
“For example, we now have Indian, Chinese, Italian, American, Caribbean and Turkish cuisine as well as traditional British fish and chips. I also understand that a French restaurant may be opening soon.”
Recently, Cllr Ara officially opened a new bookstore, Book Bodega, and Jamaican restaurant Jah Jah. A new American-style restaurant, called the TLC, is also about to be launched.
The major refurbishment of an important Regency building also provided six new apartments and ground floor commercial space which could become an art studio.
The street also has a mini-supermarket, independent butcher, bakery, hair salon, jewelry store, gift shop, women’s fashion boutique and of a pub.
As the Nice Things gift shop closes, it is replaced by a glassware and pottery workshop.
Behind the American restaurant business are Will Mitchell and his partner, who launched a gourmet burger delivery service during the pandemic.
It was such a success that they decided to look for a local to open a restaurant and said they had chosen Harbor Street because of its rising reputation.
“I used to live on the streets so I know him well and it was awful in the past,” he said.
“But that is changing and the place is becoming a real vibrancy and reputation for food with many restaurant openings.
“So we’ve invested a lot and we’re very excited about it. We’ll be opening July 1 and serving New York-style burgers, ribs, chicken, smoked meats, waffles and pancakes.”
Another planned opening is the Modern Boulangerie Cafe and Deli, the brainchild of entrepreneur George Bellamy-Adams who already runs a bakery on Westcliff Road in the city.
But he has much bigger plans for the old covered market, known as Celandine Hall, for which he has acquired a lease in Harbor Street.
The building is owned by sisters Bella Landen and Sophie Hubble, who secured a capital grant through the High Street Heritage Action Zone program to restore its beautiful historic architecture and convert the inner building from the disused shopping area into a vibrant space.
The launch date is still a long way off, but George’s vision is to provide customers with the best experience, whether it’s just having a cream tea or enjoying an intimate wedding reception. And he has a Michelin-starred pastry chef on board to help him make it happen.
“People used to give Harbor Street a big boost, but it has so much potential that is now being realized,” he said.
“We think it’s a fantastic place and it’s exciting to see so many new independent businesses opening up.”
George is launching his business with the help of Kickstarter contributions which will provide benefits for supporters.
Meanwhile, Jah Jah, which serves Caribbean-inspired cuisine, is already receiving five-star reviews.
It was launched just a month ago by business partners Thomas Sebhat and Alex Oprea.
Their Ethiopian and Romanian origins might not seem like the right recipe for a Jamaican restaurant, but Thomas explains that there is a strong Rastafarian heritage in Ethiopia.
They gutted the old abandoned cafe and turned it into a yellow and green Caribbean-themed “beach shack,” doing all the work themselves.
Reggae music by Bob Marley suitably sets the mood when I visit the pair to talk about their adventure.
“It’s been a lot of work, but we’ve been very pleased with the response and business has been very good,” says Alex.
A glance at the menu reveals Jamaican dishes like jerk, chicken, grilled fish and goat curry which are all prepared and cooked in the restaurant’s open kitchen.
“We think it’s reassuring for people to see what’s going on in the kitchen and with their orders,” says Thomas.
Book Bodega also opened this month – launched by Sapphire Bates and partner Nicholas Turner.
They, too, had to gut a dilapidated building to create a warm, inviting space for bookworms, who can even enjoy a coffee and croissant while browsing.
“We’re both book fans and had an idea for a store when this space popped up on Harbor Street.
“We could see it was a potentially charming street with so much going on that we took it.”
The couple say their own reading habits are part of the story and the “weird and wonderful” which is reflected in the eclectic mix of books they sell.
“We had an amazing response opening up which is really encouraging,” added Sapphire.
“There is no doubt that Harbor Street is becoming an exciting and engaging place to visit.”
The town mayor’s optimism for the street is shared by Ramsgate Society chairman John Walker.
“I represent the society in the main street heritage action area and we have a grant to try to encourage building owners to improve their store fronts,” he said.
He admits Harbor Street has been a dumping ground for years and a regular topic of discussion in society.
“It’s important that it’s attractive and it’s happening now, although I don’t think the gates the council has erected encourage people to venture up there from the harbour.
“But a good thing is the junction improvement plans will help.
“We hope these new businesses and general improvements to the street scene will help draw people to the city.
“And we have more grants to help shake things up. It’s the niche marketers that give character to a place and what people love.”