Penzance's maritime traditions are evident in the fresh fish and seafood which figure highly on local menus © Emma Sparks / Lonely Planet
Fancy fish, affordable prices
Cornwall is synonymous with the seaside and, of course, fish and chips. There are plenty of places to get your salt-and-vinegar-sprinkled fix along Penzance’s waterfront, but if you’re feeling adventurous this is the place to try something different. Nearby Newlyn Harbour is one of the largest fishing ports in the UK, landing over 10,000 tonnes and 53 different species of fish each year. Much of the day’s catch is snapped up and sold at Billingsgate Market in London, but lots of it is cooked and served locally.
One restaurateur pleased to have such bounty on his doorstep is chef Ben Tunnicliffe, who took over Newlyn’s 300-year-old Tolcarne Inn in 2012. He phones his suppliers each morning and plans the menu according to what’s for sale at Newlyn Fish Market, meaning that typical options might include scallops, mackerel, red mullet, grey wing, monkfish, turbot and hake.
Ben’s not the only talented chef who’s spotted Penzance’s potential. Bruce Rennie worked at Rick Stein Porthleven and the well-known Gurnard’s Head before opening The Shore in 2015. His fine-dining take on things like monkfish (with spiced lentils and coriander) and skate (with morels and parsley cream) could satisfy the most sceptical of seafood novices.
Tolcarne Inn is leading the charge in bringing delicious food to Penzance © Emma Sparks / Lonely Planet
Eat like a local, swim with the locals
The fishing industry isn’t the only historic institution in Penzance. The town’s art deco Jubilee Pool opened in 1935 and is a cherished local landmark. Chilly swimmers and windswept walkers can fuel up in the adjacent Jubilee Pool Cafe, which serves crowd-pleasers such as bacon baps, salt-and-pepper squid and warm, flaky sausage rolls with homemade brown sauce. An imminent facelift (complete with a new geothermally-heated pool and cafe/community space) means this local hub will soon be open through the winter.
Swim off some calories at the Jubilee Pool – then replace them all in the cafe © Emma Sparks / Lonely Planet
Iconic ice cream
Come rain or shine, sweet-toothed pilgrims head along the coast to Jelbert’s in Newlyn for one thing and one thing only: proper Cornish ice cream. Vanilla is the only flavour on the menu and it’s all you need – pimp your scoop with a flake and dollop of Cornish clotted cream (the latter sounds weird, but it works).
The shop was established in the early 20th century and has been run by the same family ever since, serving up a traditional recipe passed down through the generations.
If you're in the Penzance area and in need of an ice cream, Jelbert's is the place to go © Emma Sparks / Lonely Planet
People-watch with a pasty
For another Cornish classic, swing by the Cornish Hen Deli. This centrally-located cafe and coffee shop is a snug spot from which to watch the world go by. Sink your teeth into a traditional pasty (a pastry pocket of beef skirt, turnip, potato and onion), a chorizo scotch egg or savoury tart, or get a sugar hit from one of the gluten-free cakes or baklava. While you’re here, browse the shelves for anything from Italian pasta to local artisanal chocolates and homemade marmalade.
For caffeine to go, seek out Simeon’s coffee van on Bread Street, where the eponymous Simeon serves flat whites and turmeric lattes to busy shoppers and commuters from a converted 1970s Citroen HY.
You can't come to Cornwall and not try a pasty © Emma Sparks / Lonely Planet
Sleep, eat, repeat at a boutique B&B
Wherever you’ve had your hearty meal, you’ll need somewhere to sleep it off and Chapel House is a fine choice. This Georgian property was once the bohemian Penzance Arts Club – today it’s an elegant six-bedroom hotel with exquisite decor and a home-from-home feel.
Owner Susan Stuart describes herself as ‘an enthusiastic cook who likes being busy’ – which is just as well, since she serves up a huge homemade breakfast to her guests each morning (ranging from fresh smoothies to sizzling fry-ups), runs regular supper clubs, and even hosts the occasional wedding dinner. Guests are offered complimentary nightcaps in the form of Cornish gin and tonics (Elemental or Caspyn), local wine, or beer from St. Ives’ Harbour Brewing Company.
The tasty breakfast at Chapel House makes a great start to your culinary explorations of Penzance © Chapel House
Here be historic pubs
Speaking of alcohol, for a small town, Penzance has an awful lot of pubs – around 28 of them. Notable drinking holes include the Lamp & Whistle, a hip local favourite boasting an eccentric collection of bric-a-brac, complete with art on the ceiling; and the Turk’s Head, the oldest in town, said to have existed since 1233 – Lee Groves (Masterchef The Professionals semi-finalist) oversees the kitchen.
The Admiral Benbow is perhaps the quirkiest of all Penzance’s pubs though. In the 1960s, landlord Roland Morris, Cornish diver and 20th-century ‘treasure hunter’, filled the pub with marine memorabilia from the wrecks of ancient ships, and today the tavern is as much a museum as it is a place to eat and drink. Affable London transplant Chris Morgan sold his Notting Hill flat to buy this ‘leaky pub in Cornwall’, reopening the place in May 2018. Part Corsican, Chris identifies with Cornwall’s independent nature, and plans to incorporate flavours of both regions into the pub’s menu.
The Admiral Benbow is one of many historic pubs serving great food in Penzance © Emma Sparks / Lonely Planet
Wine and dine under the vines
After a tipple at the Benbow, a vineyard visit keeps the momentum going and Polgoon Vineyard and Orchard is just a 20-minute walk out of town. Since 2004 John and Kim Coulson have honed their craft, making the most of the area’s south-facing, sandy soil to create lip-smacking Cornish wines and ciders.
In the summer, visitors can tour the site, learning about how this small business creates its produce: bacchus, seyval blanc and pinot noir rosé, sparkling wines, ciders and fruit juices, among others. There’s also a seasonal cafe, where you can enjoy food and wine pairings, picnic-table-style. The shop is open year-round.
John Coulson, owner of Polgoon, admires one of his wines © Emma Sparks / Lonely Planet
Whet your appetite for art
Wine-making is an art form and Polgoon has taken this idea further, working with artists from nearby Newlyn School of Art to create a maritime label for their limited edition bacchus. The school continues the legacy of the Newlyn art colony established in the 1880s – many of the original works, which depict fisherfolk from a bygone era, are housed at Penlee House Gallery and provide an insight into the industry which has shaped the community and food culture in Penzance.
But local art inspired by this coastal region isn’t only reserved for galleries; Chapel House also hangs works from current Newlyn artists in its hallways and drawing rooms, while restaurants and cafes such as Blacks, The Front Room and The Honey Pot display local art for customers to enjoy (and purchase) while nibbling a scone or scallop starter.
Support sustainable eateries
For all its history, the tight-knit community of Penzance is looking ahead, and was recently awarded the first ‘plastic-free’ status in the UK by SAS (Surfers Against Sewage). Many restaurants and cafes – including the Cornish Hen Deli and Jubilee Pool Cafe – are supporting the initiative, banning plastic straws and seeking sustainable alternatives so that Penzance can protect its beautiful coastline and nurture its foodie scene for years to come.
Emma Sparks travelled to Penzance with support from Love Penzance. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.