Friday, 30 November 2012

How to go Down the Pub

Continuing with my series of 'How-to Guides' which state the obvious, here is my latest.

Going down the pub is not as simple as you think. You may have been to a Swiss finishing school before and not have been to a proper English pub or you may be unfamiliar with what the right thing to do is. You may unwittingly piss off the bartender, fail to pull or most importantly, look like a tit. Many years of evolving pub behaviour has resulted in a secret unwritten etiquette which for the first time I am attempting to define and publish to the world. 

Pippa Middleton, move over. You're welcome.

Jack Beard's, EC1

Types of pub

Firstly, you need to define which type of pub you are going to. There are lots of types of pub, and admittedly this is London biased, as my knowledge of suburban neo-Tudor family hang-outs (the kind that have car-parks) is minimal and yeah yeah pubs up North are great etc I know, I know *face slips off palm*. 

Moody estate pubs. St Georges flag in the window. Fighting dogs outside. My dad used to say 'Never drink in a pub with a flat roof', but make one of these your local and never worry about where to by knocked-off Hackett gear ever again.

Wetherspoons type chain. Town centre nightclub haunts of chavvy groups and Also used by old men in daytimes/weekends, who go there for the ridiculously cheap mild beer.

SW London chainish Gastropub. Probably owned by Rupert Cleverly. Farrow & Ball mushroom coloured walls, coir matting floor, chesterfield sofas, nostalgic novels, hunting prints,  expensive hearty food menu.

Trendy local. Hackney/Shoreditch An old corner pub 'saved' by nice chaps with names like Ben who aim to 'keep the heart & should of the pub' by hanging taxidermy on the walls and hoping the old white Reebok wearing locals disappear. Frequented by local creative workers (weekdays) and paunched marrieds on Sunday lunches. Probably lots of craft beer.

Work local. Best examples found in Soho/Fitzrovia/The City. These are my favourite. Hopefully still owned by independent landlords, not infected by trends yet. Very busy weekday evenings, dead at weekends. 

Types of visit

Who do you go with? Ever get that awful feeling of dread when you don't know if people will be there and you have to wander round like an idiot searching for people? 

Going alone. Men: Highly encouraged. The top ranking pub-goer is the solo male drinker, he who can hold his own at the bar, without feeling like a loner loser. He knows a few of the regulars and staff, he doesn't need to arrange with friends to go. Guys, If you can go down the pub on your own, you've made it in one of the main bloke tests of life.

Women. Highly encouraged if you charge £1000 an hour and the 'pub' happens to be the bar at Novikov, highly discouraged if not. We've all seen them, middle-aged, sitting at the bar with cheap jewellery adorning day-after-party-balloon cleavage, clothes for girls half their age, half-cut, eyeing up teenagers. Acceptable if you're waiting for someone.

Going in groups. Guaranteed to annoy the hell out of the rest of the pub, and the landlord, but tolerated because of the hefty bar bill of extra bottles of Chardonnay and the round of 15 shots that only half of the table drink. We've all seen the 'reserved for Wayne from Fatknot Recruiting' card on the table in the corner, and witnesses as the hoard of chubby, Headmasters hairstyled and high-heeled admin assistants and their Ted Baker mauve/purple shirt & tie combo colleagues strut in and try to out do each other on the Jaegerbombs.

Sitting down or standing

Men. Sitting down is not really allowed, unless on a first date, or in a meeting (with a female colleague/client). 

Women. sitting down only allowed when in groups of girls, or on a date.


Girls. Hang around the bar. Under no circumstances sit down at a table. Someone will chat/smile/offer you a drink in approximately 5-10 mins. Select nicest one.

Guys. Apply the simple 'talk to everyone' rule. Buy lots of drinks. Rule of averages states someone will be drunk enough to fancy you in the end.


It's important to know what is acceptable to drink in a pub. You don't want your mates to laugh at you or to seem unattractive to the opposite sex.

Cocktails. You're standing three deep at the bar waiting for the already overworked bar staff to keep everyone's orders flowing, and what happens, some twat decides it would be a good idea to order four different cocktails.  Cheers for that. The barman relishes the chance to roll up his sleeves and demonstrate his obvious destiny as eclectic mixologist, his ironic tattoos and Edwardian hipster braces leaping into action. Meanwhile, the rest of the waiting customers groan and make 'WTF it'll be another hour' signs to their mates. Unless your name is Derek Trotter, cocktails are only to be ordered by girls, and only then when the bar is relatively empty.  Chances are any cocktail you get in a pub will be shit anyway.

Pints. Unless you're an aspiring lad-ette, pints are for men. Order by 'pint of lager' only, as choosing between different fizzy corporate continental lagers renders you a precious twat as they all taste the same anyway.
Unless of course you've bought into the craft beer thing, which generally means you get something that tastes of something but costs loads. Ale, of course, is for really manly men.

Wine. For groups of girls, or university lecturers trying to seduce their students. Pubs generally know nothing about wine, but make massive mark-ups so don't expect anything decent.

Spirits. Go for the classics. G&T, Vodka & Soda etc. Never drink Coke with anything.
Whisky - neat, Scotch. Single malt if you're flush. Never any ice or water/mixer of any kind. Under no circumstances order bourbon unless you are in an American themed bar and you're drinking boilermakers (beer & bourbon chasers) or you're a Slash fan.

Shots. Shots are to be encouraged. I'm a great believer in shots very early on, even with the first round. 
For maximum pub points, have them at the bar, on your own, waiting for your mates' drinks to be poured. Always offer one to the bar tender.


Pubs should supply a decent selection of salty snacks to encourage more drinking. The more pretentious the pub, the more expensive the snacks. Expect anything from Walkers (Cheese & Onion, my fave) to fancy 'handcut' crisps from a farm in Suffolk, with funny flavourings and wholesome packaging. Steer clear of bar snacks you have to eat with a knife and fork.

That pretty much covers everything. Recently, all kinds of silly organised activities have been introduced to pubs, including board games, quizzes, and other weird things like knitting clubs (WT very F?). All to be avoided.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Electric Diner Review

I couldn't make it to the launch of the Electric Diner, so I sent along a Melissa-ette, Victoria Cooke, to report.

Electric Diner

London is awash with new restaurant launches, so exhausting in its pace that I don’t even try to keep up. I’m not sure where all the funding is coming from, but clearly either lots of people have deep pockets, or the current economic climate for London restaurants is so positive that the potential rewards vastly outweigh perceived risks. In any case, ours is not to reason why, and it can only be good news for the consumer.

What is cheering is the entrepreneurial nature of many of these new ventures, having started out as food trucks or pop-ups but now maturing into more established premises. Think Pitt Cue, Meatliquor, Patty & Bun and so forth. What many have in common is clearly an American influence, with ‘dogs, dirty burgers, mac'n'cheese (they just love shortening words) and doughnuts (or should that be donut, heaven forbid?) now firmly fixed in our lexicon.

And whilst the London ‘fooderati’ clearly have an insatiable appetite for culinary trends emanating from across the Pond, so it also seems that US restaurateurs are beginning to take advantage of this by dipping their toes in the proverbial water that is the London restaurant scene. Hence a nascent slew of collaborations with US chefs or indeed UK offshoots of US concepts. Adam Perry Lang’s Barbecoa was one of the first movers, and since then we’ve had Wolfgang Puck’s Cut and the expansion of the Sushisamba group with both Sushisamba and Duck & Waffle in the Heron Tower. Keith McNally’s Balthazar is due to open (though who knows when?), and burger joints Shake Shack and Five Guys are also supposed to be launching in the UK sometime soon.

Riding the wave of all things American, as well as seemingly bucking the economic trend, is Nick Jones’ Soho House Group, with its most recent offerings: Chicken Shop and Dirty Burger. Especially delightful is the choice of location in Kentish Town, a hitherto culinary desert and famed only for the Forum.

Another culinary desert where, as a resident remarked to me recently, “wealth doesn’t equate to good taste” is the Notting Hill/Portobello vortex. Yes, there is the Mall Tavern and the Ledbury, but the raft of new openings has tended to gravitate rather more East, and unsurprisingly in the West End.

So it was with frenzied anticipation that I made my way to the relaunch of the Electric Diner in Portobello that had sadly closed following a kitchen fire back in the summer. Pleasingly, the Phoenix has risen from its ashes in a blaze of on-trend glory and is sure to be a huge success in the W11 wasteground. Jones has collaborated with Brendan Sodikoff of Chicago’s Au Cheval on this one (ticking that US trend there on both counts) to bring Franco-American diner food to our shores.

While Manhattan’s stripped back décor of exposed lightbulbs and bare brick has been so evident across Soho and the East, the Electric Diner has gone for a rather more ‘cosy’ Cheers-type fit out. Bulging, fat red banquettes, dark wood bar, and swivelling leather bar stools, together with low-slung, curving wooden ceiling, reminiscent of an old-fashioned train carriage make for a comfortable dining environment. Plates are a mix of white and vintage, and drinks receptacles included a rather cutesy copper cocktail mug. I can only imagine these will go walkabout, much like the Mishkin’s tankards. The only thing the Electric appears to have retained from its previous incarnation is the precarious slope down to the bathrooms, which had me flat on my derriere some years back.

The food is pure heart attack food and the portions are huge. So far so typically American then! The menu largely mirrors that of Au Cheval, with artery clogging crowd-pleasers such as chopped liver, potato hash with duckheart gravy, Sodikoff’s famed burger, bone marrow and beef cheek marmalade and the house Bologna sandwich. There’s a “with eggs” section and a “sandwiches” section, though the latter is more “things in a bun” section for the uninitiated Brit. Desserts are basically pies – coconut and chocolate cream, and a mille-feuille.

We ordered a fair selection including the bone marrow, the potato hash, the rib of beef sandwich and the Bologna sandwich. For sides, we chose the bibb lettuce and avocado salad, sweet pickles, fries and tomatoes.

Duck & Potato Hash
We were informed that the food comes “as it’s ready”, which is fine, though our tomatoes and fries arrived before the mains, which was mildly odd. The tomatoes had been ordered on the misguided assumption that this was a tomato salad, as in my humble opinion, a tomato salad is a good barometer of a restaurant’s basic competence. Sadly out came grilled tomatoes, but they were plump beefsteak tomatoes with steak salt and chives and did not disappoint in flavour terms. The French fries were more akin to chip shop chips in size, but were beautifully crisp with a fluffy interior and the portion was enough to comfortably feed three of us. The pickles were a highlight for me – delicately sweet, flavoured with dill and mustard seeds, and without the all too common overly acidic vinegar bath. At £3 for a large bowl, these were superb value.

The Bologna sandwich is a sandwich common in the US and Canada, traditionally made from pre-sliced Bologna sausage in white bread. I believe Bologna sausage is rather like mortadella but without the giant globules of white lard, hence the eponymous nod to its Italian roots. Typically it would be accompanied with mayonnaise and mustard. The Electric’s version is served in a fluffy glazed bun, without about 4 inches’ worth of sausage and a subtle blend of Dijon mustard and mayonnaise. It was fabulously moreish but defeated me in size. Definitely one to share for the sparrows amongst you. All in all, the food was bold and ‘in your face’ and without a clanger. Even the salad was a winner: huge and well-dressed, rather how I’d like a man to be.

We didn’t do justice to the drinks menu, which features 19 beers, including the delightful Camden Gentleman’s Wit with lemon and bergamot undertones, and bottled beers I’d never heard of such as the amusingly named Flying Dog Snake. Cocktails included favourites such as Old Fashioned and Bloody Mary, and new incarnations such as the Horse’s Neck (Sazerac rye, ginger, lemon, bitters, soda) and Root to Mule (gin, lime, honey, beer) which was deceptively weak-tasting but utterly moreish.

As this was a friends and family launch, the vibe was buzzy and chock full of air kisses. David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure tinkled away in the background and the service was slick, charming and knowledgeable. This is just what West London needs, and will be sure to be rammed on a daily basis. For those that can’t get a table (no reservations policy), there’s always the takeaway doughnuts next door ;).
+44 (0)20 7908 9696

Electric Diner
191 Portobello Road
W11 2ED

Electric Diner on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Tripadvisor Top 50 as it Should Be

Much as we all love to hate Tripadvisor, it's still a pretty accurate benchmark for the top restaurants in London because it's the place where the most people post and it's easy to forget that a lot of people do look to Tripadvisor as a reliable source when deciding where to go next or when visiting a city, and it's certainly the most widely used review site in the UK.

The problem with Tripadvisor is as @Goodman_London observed a few days ago:

There could be a place with ten amazing reviews and a place with 500 amazing reviews and five ok reviews and due to the law of averages, the place with ten amazing reviews from some friends of that place would be higher up on the list. Shouldn't there be some kind of regulation? Should there be a system in place that only allows a restaurant to enter the 'Top Restaurants in London' list if they have a certain number of reviews, say 100?

I went through the top restaurants in London (I think to about 126) and eliminated all restaurants that have less than 100 reviews and came up with this list, which I think is much more accurate. 

For the first time, a list that's unbiased, non-industry or PR influenced. Could this be the real top 50 restaurants of London?

1. Petrus
2. Gordon Ramsay Restaurant RHR
3. The Ledbury
4. Le Gavroche
5. Goodman
6. Barrafina
7. Whits
8. Texture
9. Apsleys
10. Galvin la Chapelle
11. Meze Mangal
12. Marcus Wareing at The Berkley
13. Soho Joe
14. Chino Latino
15. The Promenade at The Dorchester
16. Laughing Gravy Bar & Restaurant
17. Zuma
18. The Foyer at Claridge's
19. Gordon's Wine Bar
20. Hawksmoor Seven Dials
21. Wahaca Covent Garden
22. Chettinad
23. Clos Maggiore
24. Chez Bruce
25. Rules
26. Gauthier Soho
27. Quilon
28. L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
29. Tea at The Ritz
30. J Sheekey
31. Murano
32. La Trompette
33. Naga
34. La Petit Maison
35. Viajante
36. Sketch Lecture Room & Library
37. Cantina Laredo
38. Pied a Terre
39. Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester
40. Chez Patrick
41. Kazan
42. Mildred's
43. tibits
44. The Square
45. JW Steakhouse
46. Dinner with Heston Blumenthal
47. Galvin at Windows
48. The Grill at The Dorchester
49. Cote Brasserie - St Martin's Lane
50. About Thyme

There are a few places I haven't really heard about but all in all, I think it's a much better list. Tripadvisor probably won't change but it will change the way I read the lists - if you can discount places that clearly don't have the volume of positive reviews, you can see what is really popular.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

How to Dine on Your Own

With the rise of the foodie and bar dining, it's never been more acceptable to dine solo. In fact, I rather enjoy it sometimes. But it can be awkward. Beware the pitying glances, unease of where to look, and most importantly, intruders. If you want to try a restaurant and none of your friends do, you need to make some new friends for a start. But it's also a great opportunity to go on your own and concentrate on the food and the atmosphere that you might not normally notice. If you want to grab a quick lunch and a sandwich from Pret again won't cut it, sometimes it's nice to go and sit on your own and people-watch while having a nice lunch. Here are some handy tips on how to make the most out of solo dining.

Spuntino, a perfect place to dine solo. From
1. Entry
Make eye contact as soon as possible. You don't want to scuttle in apologetically whilst looking at the floor. You're not going to enjoy that. Own the place, but not too much (If you know the chef's name, ask if they're cooking today. If they are, smile knowingly and protest that you don't want to disturb them. At all costs. You don't even know them, you just read about them in Time Out).

2. First order
If they ask what you'd like to drink as soon as you sit down, buy yourself some extra time and order some tap water. You don't want to panic-buy the first negroni you see. Then spend ten minutes perusing the wine/cocktail list. Resist ordering what you really want (vodka & coke) and go for a mid-price cocktail (about £8.50). The more Vermouth, bitters and ridiculous garnishes, the better.

3. How much to order
Don't get bullied into ordering the 'recommended' ten plates. Just order a few, and then a few more. There's only you so you don't have to pretend to like those pickled cat's feet your mate ordered. Take your time. Of course, it is expected to order off menu. Pick a word at random and say it whilst winking. Upon facing a blank stare, say, 'It's off Twitter?' They'll be too embarrassed to check. 

4. Camouflage 
If you're confident enough to sit with only the company of your massive DSLR, that's fine. Otherwise, you can sit with a magazine or book for company. For foodies, a cookbook, industry-related magazines or a copy of Fire & Knives are all acceptable reading material. It's also fine to livetweet your experience. Throw in some controversial comments about other diners or service to gain bonus points.

5. Elbows
If you're at the bar of say, Duck Soup, space is sparse. Highlight this by keeping your elbows in as far as possible and adopt a martyred expression. Unless you've taken a fancy to the hot tattooed, converse- and beanie-wearing guy next to you. In which case, 'accidentally' nudge away and keep your iPhone screen as visible as possible so he can see your Twitter/Instagram handle.

6. Intruders
If someone you don't want to sits down next to you and tries to talk to you, keep it to the food. You don't need to hear their life story. If they're not a foodie, feign needing the loo. On your return, move to the other side of the bar. This won't work as well in one of the many small Soho bars as you can see everything from any given point.

7. Paranoia
You may feel like everyone's staring at you. They're not. No-one gives a shit about solo diners any more. It's 2012. If there are people staring at you, stare back. Listen to their conversations - you can pick up some great gossip in Soho that you can tweet to make fellow diners paranoid.

8. Paying
Bring cash. You don't wait for no waiter/tress. You can slam the money down and saunter out, to avoid awkward silences while you wait for the card machine to process your payment. And you don't have to feel horrendously mean for not adding a full 12.5% gratuity if you don't think they deserved that.

Monday, 26 November 2012

No Reservations About Queuing

I was mildly irritated a few weeks ago when I read that Bubbledogs& were abolishing their current queuing system (put your name down on a clipboard and go to the pub round the corner to await a phone call) and replacing it with something much worse: visible queuing. Apparently someone had complained that they couldn't see a queue, thus not being able to see if it's busy. Well, that seems like a crap argument to me. Surely it's like complaining about not being able to see any customers in a restaurant at 5.30 that's been booked up! But surely if you wanted to go in there, you could pop your head around the door and ask how busy they were? Surely that's far more comfortable for everyone involved.

Restaurants like 10 Greek Street do it. According to @Rob_Hyde, the folks at Ciao Bella once came to find him in the pub next door in which he'd gone to sink a pint whilst he was waiting for a table. There's nothing worse than queuing, despite our English tendency to do it at every opportunity.

From the restaurant's point of view:No annoying impatient diners clogging up the doorwayNo tables of 10 demanding to know why that table of 2 that got there after them is seated first… because they can't see you from the pub

From the customer's point of view:No queuing in the cold and rain. You can go to the pub instead!You're more likely to find out how long the wait is, making it easier to wait

Queuing outside, like no reservations, is for the benefit of the restaurant. It makes it look cool and desired. But it's not favourable for the customer, who the restaurant should really be trying to impress. Instead, the restaurant is courting the potential customer without thinking about the customer who has already committed to going to the restaurant. 

Also, the restaurant has a ready made seemingly unlimited supply of customers, just waiting outside the door. It doesn't even have to make the monumental effort of calling the customer. 

My point here is not no-reservations. It is a slight irk of mine to discover I can't make a reservation if I know I'll be in a hurry or if I'm travelling an hour or so that I might not be able to get a table for another hour, but if I can sit in a nice warm bar or nearby pub, I'm ok with that. It's almost like making a reservation on the night anyway. You agree to come back at a certain time, it's just more short-term than making a booking say, a week before. The only difference is that you can't choose the exact time.

My irk is that I could be potentially standing out in the cold for a couple of hours, because the restaurant wants to look popular, and because I'll be so cold and hungry by the time I get in, rat would taste brilliant and a couple of cocktails will go down a little too nicely.

And another thing: why don't places take drinks orders in the queue? They could make shitloads of money - a lot of people would be quite happy to queue if they were drinking. It'd be like standing outside the pub having a drink and a fag. They take your card and put the drink on your tab. Simple.

I can just about handle no-reservations now, but don't make everyone stand outside for your own ego.
Which is exactly what the restaurant hopes for...

Monday, 19 November 2012

Walking into the Unknown

When was the last time you went to a restaurant without knowing anything about it? Walking into a place that you haven't seen on Twitter, or read in a newspaper, or heard about from your cool friend? I can't remember when I did. But if I do go into somewhere I know nothing about, I am uneasy. But why? London contains tens of thousands of restaurants. Not all of them are being talked about or more importantly, visited in their thousands because it's trend-driven and restaurants are talked about for being new, or for doing something controversial. Well, not all of the restaurants are doing something controversial. Some of them are just being good, quietly.

The ones that are are in several categories:
  • The 'cool' restaurants - They've been open under one and a half years, they're in all the papers still and they are still the darlings of Twitter. Nobody dares to criticise them for fear of being ousted from the cool circles. Possibly involving something meaty or fried. (ie. MEATLiquor, Burger & Lobster, Hawksmoor, anything Russell Norman)
  • The old favourites - The old hotels and restaurants that have been there since we can all remember, that are safe bets. (ie. The Wolsley, The Ivy, J Sheekey)
  • Restaurants near stations - They will always be full because of lazy tourists who don't research before they come here.
  • Chain restaurants - They're a safe bet in a city you don't know (but you'd never admit to going there). Simple.
But what about the unknown quantity? The countless Italian trattorias, the reams of dim sum places and the weird vegetarian cafe that's always intrigued you. You, as a cool London foodie, never go there, because your list of fried chicken and hotdogs is just too big. You want to spend your hard-earned money on somewhere cool, somewhere that you know will be good (and you know it will be because it's Burgerac's second favourite burger ever and it's got an average of 8.5 on hot-dinners)! If you go into somewhere you don't know, it might not be cool. It might play shit music, and worst of all, it might not be good. With the excess of information available to us at the moment, we want to know as much as possible but I'm tiring a little of that. You go into the restaurant knowing everything about it and you've probably seen five different angles of the same dish on instagram. Where's the element of surprise?

Walking into somewhere you've just noticed because you liked the look of it: that's exciting. Walking around and not knowing where to go can be good, because there are those 'hidden' places that no-one talks about but are brilliant. How can you discover them when you only go where everyone else is going, to tick them off your list?

So next time you're thinking of going to dinner, turn off Twitter and trust yourself. Walk around Soho or wherever you are. Find somewhere that looks good. Consider it. Does it look like somewhere you'd enjoy? Is it busy? (this doesn't always work, though. Angus Steak House is always busy. It doesn't mean it's good). And if you go inside and have a look at the menu and realise it's not somewhere you'd like, you can leave. It may make you feel uncomfortable for a few minutes, but it's better than sitting somewhere for two hours being miserable (like anywhere that you go) But at least you've tried.

Here are some places I've stumbled across without hearing about them before:

Cheap & Cheerful tiny BYO curry cafe in the style of Tayyabs without the queues or the hype. No Lamb chops but lamb korai is just as good.

Great value Thai owned by the sister of Alan Yau and her Thai husband. Not many people know that. Check out the amazing £6.80 set lunches.

Perfect date venue kind of French place. Great Andrew Edmunds style feel, friendly. Good wine.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

How to Recommend a Restaurant

Recently, a friend asked me to recommend a restaurant for her birthday in London. My heart sank. I HATE recommending restaurants to people. But I have to, because she's my friend, she invited me and because she thinks I'm the restaurant equivalent of Mary Portas. I don't like to correct her.

People may think that London foodies, upon being asked to recommend a restaurant, are smug creatures, reaching into their back pockets for the 'perfect little place' for every occasion. The truth is, it creates a massive amount of pressure on you, the recommender. What if you've been there a million times and they have an off-day? What will your friend think of you? Will you be off the Christmas list or will your friendship be good as over?

The problem is that there's always a lot of back-and-forthing. You may think you've recommended the perfect place, but the inevitable replies will come back: 'I was hoping for something a little more... authentic.' (You want more authentic? Go to bloody Tuscany then), or 'It's a bit out of my price range.' (Suggest that they go to McDonald's for a happy meal. Is that within their price range?) Or my favourite: 'I was hoping somewhere a bit cooler.' Sorry love, if you don't want to pay eight quid for a cocktail,  your 'cool' options are vastly depleted.

I put together a step-by-step guide to choosing 'the perfect little place'. It may not be altogether helpful, but it will give you an idea of how much of a nightmare it is.

1. The initial contact
"You know London restaurants, don't you? Can you recommend a really great one to me?" (It's funny how people always ask you to recommend a good one. It's like they think if they don't specify a good one, you'll tell them to go to a really shit one. Mention this in the style of an observational comedian, like it's only just occurred to you.

2. One size does not fit all
They won't give you any specifications because they will assume that if it's good, it's suitable for all occasions. This is wrong except in very rare instances. Restaurants are not like those 'magic' gloves from Primark. One size does not fit all.

3. Where?
You'll need to ask questions like 'where?' Out-of-towners occasionally don't realise just how big London is. To get to one side of London from the other when four different lines are 'down for maintenance' could potentially be the equivalent of their journey from Coventry. Give them a quick test on the tube map, to ascertain how much they know.

4. How many?
'How many people will there be?' Your answer's probably going to be different if there are two people to if there are twenty. You might have to go into private dining territory (if you book a PD room, make sure there is music. I recently had a semi-awkward dinner in which whenever there was a silence, it was really doubly awkward). Make wild claims about cancellation fees, to get a real number.

5. Style?
'What kind of food?' (you could spend some time compiling a varied list of restaurants when it turns out that they only wanted sushi restaurants. They expected you to know that, kay?). If they say 'I don't know', you may have to subtly interrogate them. If you have an area and a food style, it majorly decreases brain-wracking time (reel off several unlikely choices facetiously, just to annoy them).

6. Occasion?
'What's the occasion?' If they want more romantic first date than kid's 9th birthday party, it's going to change. Obviously. Make a short Powerpoint presentation of opposing places, with titles such as 'Nobu or Nando's?' (A thing to remember about birthdays is that the birthday boy or girl will hate you forever more if you ruin their birthday).

7. When?
'When are you looking to go?' 'Tomorrow.' If today is Friday and tomorrow is Saturday, laugh, long and loud. Bonus points if it's in December.

8. Budget?
 'How much are you looking to pay?' Your definitions of 'good value', 'cheap' and 'within reason' may vary wildly from others'. Grill them extensively for figures.

9. What's the damage?
A thing that it's important to anticipate is the paying of the bill. Does the restaurant charge automatic gratuity? Will your (large) party refuse to pay any? Will the party insist on painstakingly dividing up the bill? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I suggest going to somewhere you can pre-pay at the bar.

10. Never go there.
Finally, are you going? If you are, anything that goes wrong in your normally favourite place will be YOUR FAULT. By all accounts, decline. Or make up a crap excuse at the last minute.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Review: Pintxos, Soho

8.30pm Tuesday night. Wanted to go to a 'sit-at-the-bar-with-a-drink-dining' type of place with a friend. Last minute obviously so booking wasn't an option (what loser books anyway, grandad?) so was wondering around Soho looking. Had tried to go to Bocca Di Lupo but was told an hour (looked nice that night, clientele - producers, producers' young trendy girlfriends & boyfriends), must go back there though. Spuntino was full too, so wandered over and up towards Barrafina. Cutting through Bateman street, we decided in the end to go to Pintxo, the little tapas place. Never been before. Exciting!

Pintxos (I'm still having to double-check how to spell it, stupid Basque words, why they don't just write Pinchos I don't know) is one of the currently en-vogue tapas places in London, a now solid part of the restaurant scene ever since UK Tapas grew up from being the kind of second-rate novelty it was 10 years ago.

I remember eating bowls of meatballs in smaller portions than I'd like in dodgy City restaurants called 'El Toro' or something,  full of Essex boy traders and being charged through the nose for the pleasure. It's now a fully fledged part of the small plate phenomenon where - hold on a minute - you also eat smaller bowls of meatballs than you'd like and are charged through the nose for the pleasure. Where are all the Essex boys? That is the question.

No Essex boys in Pintxos (spellcheck again) though, a mixed bag of media workers, probably art workers and researchers rather than top creatives (they'd be in Barrafina), and couples on first dates, or possibly in illicit affairs.

Actually where tapas really works is with people 'playing away'. It's not dinner really, although it costs as much, so if you go for a drink with someone you fancy but are not really allowed to be with, say, someone else's boyfriend for example, you can sit cosily and drink, and kind of have dinner together, under the thinly-veiled ruse of a casual platonic get-together. I can just imagine the high pitches cries of 'it wasn't like that! We were just talking about the day's ideation session over some albondigas!' as you dodge flying wine glasses when you get home.

So there we were, welcomed by a rather charming guy behind the bar, who gave us menus and then preceded to explain the concept of the restaurant. It turned out the menus weren't necessary, because the way it works here is you go to the bar and help yourself to whatever you want. Like a buffet. Drinks are ordered at the bar too. How fun and easy-going.

So here's what I had:

Potted smoked Mackerel was as ok as a little pot of smoked oily fish will always be. I ended up eating it using the skewers as chopsticks.

Chilli Chicken kebab with mint and coriander shot was quite tasty, in a kind of Tiger-Tiger 1998 Friday night canapé sort of way.

Pepper Stuffed with Goats cheese and pine nuts tasted exactly like the ones you buy in tins from Eroski (which isn't a bad thing tbh).

Peas & broad beans with some sort of mint and cheese (if I remember rightly) was a bit like Spuntino but just made me wish I was in Spuntino.

Tortilla. Now, everyone knows tortilla is Spain's secret favourite food, like Yorkshire puddings are ours, and crepes are France's. The only way tortilla should surely be made is with eggs and potato, butter, maybe some onion. Served warm and steamy. This was fridge cold, damp, depressing. Wet cold egg with cold vegetable, another terrible combination. Possibly spinach or something. Nasty.

Deep fried olives - olives are just fine as they are aren't they?.

Some other stuff that I can't remember. Some kind of mashed up aubergine I think. I should really remember to take notes.

My friend had by this point looked at me and said 'picnic food'. I kind of agreed. We decided to leave, so after dutifully carried our gathering of skewers to the bar we got the bill.
Now just under £40 quid for two beers and some nibbles is enough as it is, but what really shocked me was - you've guessed it -  the adding on of service.

Yes, rewind a little here. I sat down, I then got up again and went and helped myself to food from a bar. (Did I mention I did this myself?) Then I went back to the bar and ordered drinks, which I carried myself to where I was sitting. When I wanted to leave, I gathered up all my sticks and took them back to the bar, waited in line for my turn, then got our bill. At which point in this experience did I receive any service, let alone service worthy of a tip? Is smiling when you go somewhere service now? I genuinely wanted to ask whether the tips were put in a pot and shared with all the customers as they left at the end, because it is the customers doing all the service!

As I paid, the same nice charming guy behind the bar asked me - 'how was everything?'.
Do you really think I was going to start listing off a load of gripes? No, and that's because nobody ever does. Not unless you're one of those cringe-making outspoken people who relishes in causing a scene (everyone knows one of them). Call me a wimp but you don't want to spoil everyone's night. No-one likes a confrontation.

If Claude Bosi is reading this he would surely tell me to buy a pair of balls and play with them. Well Claude, after that I'm on my way to the biggest, hairiest testicle shop I can find right now! Which do you recommend?

So Pintxos (spelled it first time, yay) was a bit of a let-down for me really, doing the sort of tapas Spanish bars give you free to keep you there longer.

I probably wouldn't go back, unless of course I was having an affair, in which case it would be perfect.

Food: 4/10
Illicit leg-brushing, marriage-breaking potential: 9/10
Service 9/10 (I always award myself good marks)

(Sorry, no pictures)

Footnote: Sorry this has been my second gripey post about service in recent times, I promise I won't bore you again with this subject for a while.

EDIT: All references to Catalan have been changed to Basque, thanks for the tips!

Pix Pintxos on Urbanspoon Square Meal


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