“No bookings” dining has reached a fever pitch here in London. Never before have such exciting, new restaurants been so accessible. The best part, many are in Soho, perfect for visitors taking in a West End show. And while according to the restaurateur Russell Norman who kicked-off the trend in 2009 with the Venetian-inspired Polpo with the aim to create vibrant spaces with excellent food for locals, seems to me tourists benefit most as there is no planning required. Below are my favorite “no bookings” spots, great for pre- or post theatre as they tend to fill up after shows are underway. If your clients do plan to go at peak times (i.e. between 7 and 9 for dinner), expect waits ranging from 30 minutes up to two hours in lively bars with interesting cocktails and nibbles dished out by handsome hipsters. Waiting (or “queuing” as it called here) is part of the fun, as the crowd is mostly media and entertainment types whose offices dot the area.
Probably responsible for starting the “no booking” craze, Polpo is a bàcaro, a Venetian word to describe a modest restaurant serving simple food and young wines. True of this London hotspot, add in hip setting (think retro pressed tin ceiling, rustic tables and chairs, wine served in tumblers) and polite service with a smile form attractive, slim limbed, tattooed Brits. Menu is a mix of small, reasonably priced seasonal plates ideal for sharing. Items we love: taleggio and kale pesto crostini, any of the meatballs (including a few interesting veg options) and the best fritto misto in London. Since opening in on Beak Street in 2009, it’s spawned a cookbook, and owner Russell Norman has opened six other successful restaurants, including Polpetto (http://polpetto.co.uk/) which moved and reopened a month ago on Berwick Street. We enjoyed a terrific meal there last week, the long, narrow room alive with a nice mix of professionals, theater-goers and couples. Food is slightly more up market than Polpo, still great for sharing; we loved the creamy burrata with chili and a sweet bacon chop.
Hands down, the best tapas bar in London and better than many we went to in Barcelona. Located on Frith Street, the place only has 20 stools around an L-shaped bar, so unless you come around 5 pm when it opens for dinner expect a line. Drinks and bites served while you wait and enjoy the show of chefs shouting orders, grilling, frying and serving with gusto. The menu is a sampling of Mallorcan and Catalan tapas dishes; do not miss the classic tortilla, a thick egg and potato cake with a runny center that I could happily enjoy as my last meal on this planet. The best news: a second Barrafina will open in May in Covent Garden with 29 stools. Cannot wait!
Soho is the original location of what is now a small chain, where for £20 you choose from lobster (grilled or steamed whole, or a New England style salad in buttery brioche roll) or a bacon and cheese burger, all served with a tasty salad and generous portion of crispy fries. Any of the lobster choices are excellent and a sweet deal as comparable meal would be at least £30 elsewhere. I adore the lobster roll with the chunky, mayonnaise-y salad that reminds me of summers at home. Unlike the other restaurants mentioned, this one is a large with many tables, the limited menu means food comes quickly and the line moves swiftly. Here waiting is also a pleasure at the very long bar with an equally long list of refreshing cocktails. Tip: you can make reservations for parties of 6 or more.
If we’ve eaten before a show, I love something sweet after and Gelupo is the spot. My favorite ice cream in London, Gelupo serves up smooth, creamy gelato and bright, fruity sorbets in a range of unusual flavors that change daily. Yet, I have a hard time diverting from the classics, particularly the deep, dark chocolate and the rich hazelnut. Great Italian coffees and homemade pastries on offer too, stays open until midnight and the location on tiny Archer Street is just a few licks from Piccadilly Circus and some of the larger theaters.
See you in Soho. From London with Love, xx