Small plate dining is the flavour of the month in London, with new openings and firm favourites vying for the capital's seasoned grazers. Taste investigates.
Despite the past few years of apparent economic gloom, London has been a mecca for openings of every possible shade. The capital seems to be sprouting restaurants and the online chatter is as much about opening dates for reservations as actual openings. Along the way, we've learnt to eat on communal benches, breakfast with the conversation turned up and dine at crowded bars - typically ones that sit somewhere in the interior design nexus of reclaimed materials and industrial fittings.
On the culinary front, a now firmly established theme is menus encouraging the casual pick-and-mix of small plate dining in its various regional iterations: from tapas bars to Japanese izekaya joints, Chinese dim sum to Venetian cicheti. It's a noisy, boozy way to eat, privileging an indecisive, picky crowd as intent on each other and the drinks as the menu.
It has been decades since Britons really discovered tapas - probably somewhere along the Costa del Sol - resulting in suburban knock-offs far removed from the boisterous atmosphere and simple, sparkling flavours of its bar snack origins. Lately, though, London's small plate scene has taken off, thanks in part to the groundbreaking, Moorish inflected Moro in Exmouth Market, which opened in '97.
A decade later, brothers Sam and Eddie Hart opened Barrafina in Soho, inspired by Barcelona's Cal Pep restaurant, exemplar of the quality produce, quick cooking and conviviality the Spanish do so well. With 23 seats and no reservations, Barrafina has all the noise and movement of its muse and a menu that keeps it packed four years in.
Moro alumnus, author, homemade charcuterie aficionado and expert on Italian cuisine, Jacob Kenedy opened Bocca di Lupo after extended adventures through Italy's regional cuisine. The menu travels widely, focusing on the nuances of flavour that make up the country's distinctive, emphatic cooking. Kenedy's small empire extends across Archer Street, W1 to Gelupo - an open-late gelateria cum delicatessen that goes some way in placating the punters unable to get into the ever-packed Lupo père.
Opera Tavern bookends the three, serving tapas with an Italian bent. The newly opened sibling to Salt Yard and Dehesa, led by exec chef Ben Tish, OT makes home in a beautifully restored old pub in the heart of Theatreland. Alongside the tapas, there's a Josper grill turning out the likes of Ibérico pork and foie gras burgers and pinchos morunos by the skewer. Its Covent Garden address signals the area's rising culinary fortune, with (relative) newcomers The Savoy Grill, Terroirs, Les Deux Salons, Kopapa, Bougie and next year's Balthazar marking a long overdue revival.
Barrafina, Bocca di Lupo/Gelupo and Opera Tavern are appearing at Taste of London 2011.