There was once a time when you wouldn’t be seen dead eating at a bar. My, how the tables have literally turned . Sitting at a bar is now the hottest seat in town thanks to the likes of Spuntino and the stalwart of no tables and no reservations, Barrafina.
An impromptu dinner at the bar at POLPO on Monday night with a friend led to a plan for a Friday night of restaurant hopping around Soho and Covent Garden. Our own version of a bacaro crawl.
Our first stop for the evening was to the new raWBar at Wright Bros on Kingly Street. The bar at this oyster house has been subtly changed to house a raw bar displaying fine crustaceans to feast on. A glass of prosecco and a few Maldon oysters were enjoyed amongst a mixed crowd of after work couples having an early dinner and some out of towners. Wright Bros is an ideal spot for a more casual evening of seafood fun.
£18.00 for Two glasses of prosecco and three oysters
Bar rating: 6 / 10
Next on the list was the newly opened Fornata, a few doors up from Wright Bros. Italian small plates is the concept (yawn) from the owners of Babbo on Albemarle Street. Perched at the bar with an Aperol spritz, no thought had been put into the foot rail, raised only about an inch from the ground. We may as well have been in high chairs, legs dangling freely like discarded puppets. The lighting was severe, so NHS.
Our thoughts turned to food. The menu resembled a half completed Scrabble board being played in English and Italian, with a mix and match of words supposedly describing what was on offer. The dishes seemed to have no obvious ordering or rhyme and reason on the menu. We recruited the help of someone who knew what they were talking about, fresh from his menu tastings for Mishkin’s. Being a chef, he kindly pointed out that our raw salmon was being cut on a meat board. The perils of an open kitchen for all to see.
The oven baked salmon carpaccio was more like something you would expect to see on the assembly line at a Whiska’s cat food factory than at a Soho eatery. Sloppily presented slices of salmon plonked on a plate with tapenade from a jar smeared across it. The polenta with parmesan crust resembled the sponge face painters use at a kids party, both in texture and looks. I struggled to taste any parmesan. The only saving grace were the arancini with beef ragu.
There is always a defining mark when a trend becomes mainstream and ruins it. In the case of Italian small plates, it is the opening of Fornata.
£33 for Two Aperol spritz, gin and tonic and three small plates
Bar rating: 2 / 10
I’d heard nothing about this Spanish tapas joint that has recently opened on D’Arblay Street. Architecturally simple inside and easy on the eye, the room resembles a scullery with cream tiles and bare wooden counter tops. Industrial light fittings that resembled meat hooks give it that Soho edge. We breathed a sigh of relief that the lighting in here meant we didn’t need our Ray Bans.
The menu was limited to about 15 dishes, the polar opposite to our previous spot, and was the sort of menu where you could easily have ordered everything from it. Pea, fresh cheese and truffle oil croquettas were an epiphany to the taste buds. The razor clam, potato puree and chevril roots was in the same league as J Sheekey’s razor clam dish. Our last plate was squab pigeon with pears and chocolate. A little wanky for a tapas place but it worked. The pigeon was perfectly cooked and the pears and chocolate combo momentarily reminded me of my favourite pudding at school.
Copita is a little gem of a place. Think Jose on Bermondsey Street but less cramped, better food and better prices.
£42 for Three large gin and tonics (£7.50 each) and three plates.
Bar rating: 7/10
Our final pit stop for the evening was Opera Tavern. A glass of prosecco and crispy pigs ears prepared us for the onslaught of the chorizo with sweet peppers, stuffed courgette flowers and the Iberico and foie gras burger. I’d been a little critical of Opera Tavern when it first opened but having not been back for a while, the food and service has most definitely gone up a level. However, I still remain adamant that the ground floor bar is better than the upstairs restaurant.
£40 for Two glasses of prosecco and four plates
Bar rating: 8/10
Restaurants with no reservation policies are given a hard time in the press. It may well be more convenient for the restaurateur but it is also a blessing in disguise for customers. Eating out should have an element of spontaneity. In fact, I can’t remember the time I last made a reservation.
My bar hopping companions for the night were Carmen McIlveen, Assistant Manager at da Polpo (@carmenpie) and Tom Oldroyd, Group head chef of Polpo Ltd (@tomolpo)