It’s Friday night and a DJ is playing Ibiza tracks at Coast Cafe. Beyond the open doors, drinkers sip Aperol Spritz at tables on the pebble Sussex beach and fire jugglers ready themselves for sunset. It could be Brighton, but it isn’t. This is 10 miles west, in the UK’s most famous seaside town’s less fashionable neighbour: Worthing. This lively end-of-week scene is just one of the hints that the town’s sleepy retirement image is a thing of the past.
A few metres further along the front, Crabshack serves up excellent seafood on raw-wood benches and an outdoor deck strung with lights. On the other side of the pier, the town’s ugly multistorey car park now sports an al fresco food court, erected during the pandemic on the jutting roof of level one. In deckchairs on artificial grass, groups still gather for seaview sundowners and wood-fired pizza.
The town has been enlivened by a shift in demographic, as younger people priced out of its city neighbour have moved up the coast
Though there are microbreweries and cocktail bars besides, not all the town’s newer diversions involve eating and drinking. In the 1930s chalet studios beside Coast Cafe, East Beach, you can buy direct from resident artists. Inspired, near the pier, also sells clothing and homewares sporting cheery graphics dreamt up by local designer-makers, while there’s an artists’ hub with frequent exhibitions at Colonnade House. On summer Saturdays here, you can catch free family-friendly outdoor performances from international talent as part of the town’s annual festival of contemporary circus and theatre (until 10 September).
It’s still a way off from Brighton’s much-referenced “London-on-sea” vibe, with Worthing considerably smaller – but that also makes it more intimate, less crowded. The town has been enlivened by a shift in demographic, as younger people priced out of its city neighbour have moved up the coast.
In 2018, Worthing launched its own Pride festival; in the same year, resident Kenny Tutt won BBC’s MasterChef, ignoring Brighton’s thriving foodie scene to establish his first restaurant Pitch in his up-and-coming hometown. Tutt’s family moved down from London 25 years ago, having been frequent visitors to Worthing’s “quintessential British beaches”.
The chef remarks: “I always remember my dad taking a big gulp of fresh sea air when we pulled up. ‘Breathe it in, son’ he would say.” The town’s position between the sea and South Downs convinced Tutt it was perfect for sourcing quality produce. “Like a lot of seaside locations, which I believe have been a little overlooked, Worthing was crying out for more exciting dining spots,” he tells me. “In recent years, there has been a massive flurry of great cafes and restaurants, supported greatly by lots of people moving into the town from larger cities, in search of the good life.”
Last year Tutt gave Worthing another vote of confidence by opening a second, more casual restaurant, Bayside Social. All wood and bi-fold doors, this sits directly on the town’s East Beach – giving it, in his words, “strong holiday vibes”.
However, it’s a 2022 newcomer that’s really changing the scene here. A £1m restoration has just seen the tired tearoom on Worthing’s beautiful Art Deco pier transformed into a stylish all-day restaurant and cocktail bar, Perch on the Pier. It’s the third Sussex coast hangout from Alex Coombes, who himself recently moved to Worthing after 15 years on a heritage square in the heart of Brighton’s fashionable twin Hove.
“We thought that Worthing really needed a flagship,” Coombes says of the project. It was only after purchase that he realised the responsibility he had taken on, not just financially but emotionally, too. “It ended up costing a lot more than we anticipated,” he says. “So many people told me stories about what the pier had meant to them. They said, ‘We’re dying for you to make it better’. We really wanted people to be excited about it.”
He has noticed Hove families in particular “drifting” west in search of better-value homes. Worthing “does feel a bit more Brighton” these days, admits Coombes, citing its burgeoning independent scene (including a specialist cheese shop that’s “so Hove”), though he’s quick to add that the town, unlike its neighbours, is “not a 24-hour place”.
Refreshingly, Worthing’s shift is not about gentrification. Perch’s clientele, here and at its sibling venue in nearby Lancing, indicates a broadening, rather than a narrowing, of audience. Coombes says: “We’ve never really been able to work out our demographic. It’s such a variety, which is nice, really, because we want to make everybody’s day.”
So many people told me stories about what the pier had meant to them. They said, ‘We’re dying for you to make it better’
And the town has other vintage charms to match its historic pier. The gorgeous retro Dome Cinema opposite the seafront makes the perfect bolthole in rainy weather, while its Museum and Gallery has one of the most important historical clothing collections in the country. The 30,000 exhibits you’ll find there (which include Queen Victoria’s undies) have aided research for many a costume drama. The Connaught, one of the town’s two theatres, is, like the pier, a Deco delight. The wide promenade now features coffee and gin trucks and, even in August, you’ll find plenty of elbow room on the beach.
Tempted, but not ready to give up your Brighton weekender? You don’t have to. Both the railway and a seafront cycle path join the two resorts, making it great for a twin-stop break. Save for a detour around Shoreham Port, you can hug the beach the whole way on two wheels. Just remember to shift down a gear as you breeze into Worthing.
Direct trains from London Victoria to Worthing take around one hour 20 minutes. The 12-mile ride to or from Brighton follows National Cycle Route 2. There are public hire bikes in both Brighton and Worthing, though for the full distance bringing your own bike could be comfier. With numerous train stops on the 30-minute journey between the resorts, it’s easy to dodge a section of the ride or return by rail.
The Burlington Hotel on the seafront was reputedly a haunt of Oscar Wilde. Doubles from £110, B&B.
Ardington Hotel is a modern option near the pier. Doubles from £88, B&B.
Stone’s Throw is a stylish beachfront bungalow sleeping four where Worthing meets Goring-by-Sea. From £80, self-catering.