On the southern fringes of the New Forest, where sandstone cliffs overlook the edge of the Solent Strait, sits one of my favourite eateries in Dorset. It’s only just in Dorset, mind, close to the Hampshire border, and I can’t even remember quite how I discovered it, but I’m happy that I did!
The Cliffhanger Café and Restaurant in Highcliffe-on-Sea has probably the best views that I’ve found in any restaurant/café in the UK and has become a regular favourite for taking my mum, who lives nearby, to lunch (dad usually prefers to stay at home and potter in the garden!). It’s a lovely coastal stop-off point that anyone can enjoy, whether it be families, couples, water-sport enthusiasts, or lone dog-walkers. Here are the reasons I keep coming back over and over again.
From the outside itself, The Cliffhanger Cafe is simple and unpretentious. Built in 2007, it consists of 2 circular-fronted sections on either side, with a flat-fronted middle section, all glass-fronted to allow the unrivalled views. With its brick base and wood-panel cladding, I rather like its straightforward modular style, which I think complements the comfortable and cosy atmosphere found inside.
It’s a single-storey establishment, but has a split-level layout and lots of little nooks and corners, giving it added interest and appeal. I’m sure each regular customer has their particular favourite section or table. Ours is usually at the top end, just as you enter. It’s a virtual solarium up there, and you get the views from slightly higher up. The furniture is varied, with brightly-coloured tub chairs alternating with patterned built-in seating and sleek faux-leather chairs, but somehow they’ve managed to give it feel of uniformity with warm wooden flooring throughout and feature walls in colourful but muted shades.
In the summertime (and on the drier and less blustery days in the off-season) outdoor tables and chairs provide an alfresco alternative for enjoying the food and location. Christmas time brings a completely different ambience, and the Cliffhanger excels just as easily in seasonal festive charm.
The three menus (breakfast, daytime & evening), all offer a simple, uncluttered range of tasty and wholesome dishes, with ingredients sourced as locally as possible. The Cliffhanger’s classic staple dish is beer-battered chunky fish and chips, served with minted mushy peas and homemade tartar sauce. The menus do vary, often to reflect seasonal variations in available ingredients, but I love that they occasionally feature unexpected twists on a classic – for example, they once served chilli con carne on a baked sweet potato.
The flip side of this is your favourite dish may disappear at some stage, but there will always be something else to try! We recently chose the crispy, fried whitebait for my mum, which she loved – it’s a common dish in her native Spain and although it’s no longer on the menu, I’m sure she’ll be equally tempted by something else next time. The salads are always generous and well-presented and there’s a fair range of vegetarian and gluten-free options, with vegan choices also available. The staff have always been very friendly to us, accommodating any requests where possible.
The Location and Views
The restaurant’s position, set back a short distance from the town centre and perched near a cliff (the clue is in its name!) bestows it with fabulous sea views towards the Isle of Wight to the east, and Studland Bay (the start of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast) to the south-west. This is one of the most picturesque stretches of the accessible Solent coastline, giving you the perfect opportunity to either build up an appetite with a sea-front stroll or walk off those chunky chips afterwards.
But don’t just imagine enjoying a light lunch on a balmy summer day, as you gaze from your window seat across clear blue skies and calm waters. The café is also a great spot for observing moody, changeable weather, as the clouds darken and swirl over the sea. On a recent visit, we went from autumnal beams of sunlight to marble-sized hailstones within an hour – a fantastic display by Mother Nature from a comfy and sheltered viewing ‘platform’, accompanied by a cream tea.
The Surrounding Area
Highcliffe itself is a sedate little town with a modest selection of shops and restaurants, bridging the New Forest with the historic town of Christchurch . It doesn’t have the typical feel of a seaside resort, and driving along the main street it’s not immediately obvious that you’re just a couple of hundred metres from such lovely scenery.
What it does have, is a curious historical claim to fame. In the 1930s a man named Gerald Gardner moved into a house in Highcliffe, with his wife Dorothea Rosedale (known as Donna). Gardner had already lived a varied and unconventional life, having developed a keen interest in anthropology and folkloric rituals through spells overseas – often in the far east. But it was in Highcliffe-on-Sea that he was to build his lasting legacy. After becoming involved in a local Rosicrucian Order he eventually broke away and founded what we now know as the Wicca movement, the contemporary religious belief system based on ancient Pagan traditions.
Back to the present, and just over a mile away you’ll find the renowned Chewton Glen Country House Hotel & Spa (if you want a luxury break in the area there’s no better option, and none as unique as a stay in one of their luxury treehouses).
Also nearby is the Grade1-listed Highcliffe Castle, a 19th century gothic-revival castle built by diplomat Lord Stuart de Rothesay in the early 1830s, and for nature lovers, Steamer Point Nature Reserve, adjacent to the castle grounds, provides 24 acres of woodland and aquatic habitats with a variety of flora and fauna to explore. Christchurch itself, with its impressive Priory, Norman castle ruins and pretty harbour, is less than 10 minutes’ drive away.
Main meals at the Cliffhanger Café start at £6.65 for a filled ciabatta or baked potato from the lunchtime menu and £5 for breakfast. Kids menus also available. Waiting times are higher at peak times and the Café doesn’t take pre-orders, so be sure to book if you want to guarantee a table.
The Cliff Top Car Park is right by the Café, so the food, views and walking options couldn’t be more accessible. Currently, the car park is free in the off-season (October-March) so take advantage when you can. The charge for a 2-hr stay in April & May is £2.10 and between June & September £2.60.
Chewton Glen Hotel & Spa is offering last-minute short breaks from £142pppn (room only, main hotel).
Highcliffe Castle is closed for major building works until March 2018.
Steamer Point Nature Reserve is open all year round and admission is free.
Disclosure: My visits to the Cliffhanger Café and Restaurant are paid for by myself and are not subsidised. All opinions, as always, are my own. Please Note: The Cliffhanger is about to undergo a refurbishment, and I will update images and information after my next visit (hopefully soon!).