Devon chef Mitch Tonks lands his catch with Sidmouth seafront fish restaurant approval

A Devon chef’s hopes to open a ‘world-class seafood restaurant’ on Sidmouth seafront are to become reality after his plans were given the green light.

After a lengthy process, a trendy fish restaurant has been given permission to open on Sidmouth seafront, writes local democracy reporter Bradley Gerrard.

But some people think the proposed design for Rockfish is a “missed opportunity”.

Westcountry chef Mitch Tonks, who attended the East Devon District Council planning meeting that considered his plan, said he had “loved the site since it came up for sale” and that he aims to create a “world-class seafood restaurant” for the town.

Rockfish owner Mitch Tonks says he is looking forward to opening an eatery in Sidmouth.

Rockfish owner Mitch Tonks says he is looking forward to opening an eatery in Sidmouth.

His scheme for the old Drill Hall site, previously the home of Sidmouth Territorial Army, involves demolishing the Port Royal public toilets next door, which have a sheltered seating area on one side.

While Rockfish will create new public toilets, there will only be two WCs, which will be accessible for people with disabilities, unisex, and have baby-changing facilities.

Sidmouth

Rockfish’s plans for the Drill Hall.
Image: Exmouth Grainge Architects.

The loss of the Port Royal loos and outside seating was the focus of public objections, with some residents also feeling the design of the restaurant was less ambitious than it could have been for such a prominent site.

“I think a bulldozer could have done a darn sight better job,” said Cllr Mike Howe (Independent, Clyst Valley).

“I know that’s contentious, and I get that [the building]has a local listing, but it could have been a real world-class building.

“It’s going to be fantastic, and I know the applicant will make a really good job of it, but it doesn’t stand out and it’s a utilitarian building, not even that old, and so it’s just a shame.

“I just wish we’d have considered it as a proper regeneration and put something there really fantastic and done something for the business and the local area.”

Cllr Ian Barlow (Independent, Sidmouth Town) echoed the sentiments, stating that he “couldn’t agree more.”

He continued: “As much as we do support Rockfish, we feel let down by East Devon District Council, as [the town council]tried to get something off the ground, but East Devon gave up.

“I think it is a missed opportunity for Rockfish as there aren’t many sites on the south coast with that view, and this could have been something not just for Sidmouth or Rockfish but for the whole of East Devon.

“This is a world-class site and we’re going to end up with a seafood restaurant, on the seafront, with possibly some sea views, but with the 1.3 metre wall [around the front]and plants above that, there aren’t going to be many.”

Cllr Barlow added it was “not Rockfish’s fault” but felt a more ambitious scheme could have been imagined.

Council officers said East Devon wants to stop operating and maintaining the Port Royal toilets because it can’t afford to keep maintaining every public toilet block in the district.

This meant that Rockfish’s inclusion of two public toilets in its scheme – on top of the six inside the restaurant – was deemed positive.

Cllr Kelvin Dent, chair of Sidmouth Town Council’s planning committee, “warmly welcomed” Rockfish to the town, but agreed that the loss of “at least six public toilets in this busy location is a mistake”, and “really regrets the loss of the shelter – a real community asset”.

Cllr Sophie Richards (Conservative, Sidmouth Town), said the new scheme was an improvement on the poor-looking building now, but felt it was a “missed opportunity to provide an exceptional addition to a rare and prime location which should command something quite amazing in design”.

Mr Tonks was asked why a balcony had not been included in his designs, but the chef said while it had been part of original plans, the front gable was too dilapidated to make it work, and advice given to him suggested such an addition could be a problem from a heritage perspective.

He agreed the lack of a balcony was a “lost opportunity” and that “maybe we’ll take a look and come back with revisions”, quipping that his architect was watching and so might say ‘what are you doing?’.

“But we believe in Rockfish being a community asset,” he added.

He told councillors he wants to open the restaurant by next spring, but that if he could make revisions to the scheme before then to appease any aspects that were viewed less favourably, he would try.

“We took advice on the [Port Royal] seating and toilets but I do think community seating is something we should have… so if there’s any way of accommodating some of the suggestions for the benefit of the community then let’s look at how we can do that,” he said.

The scheme, which had previously been delayed because the Environment Agency wanted Rockfish to create a flood evacuation plan, was approved unanimously.

Altered plans for retirement flats on former council office site in Sidmouth are rejected