No reservation? No problem. At London’s most in-demand new restaurants you can eat the same food by the same celebrity chef if you nab a spot at the bar. Grace Dent celebrates the best seats in the house
Being freelance for 17 years makes a lady slightly feral. I eat at weird times, I don’t do three courses and I’m often alone, perched on a tall chair at Dean Street Townhouse, inhaling smoked haddock soufflé. Or at Balthazar’s bar with a glass of Pinot Noir and the steak tartare, downstairs at Argentine haven Zoilo, or on the pool deck at Shoreditch House nursing a Twinkle.
A lot of diners still think they are in with a chance of a table and chairs when they show up somewhere hyped, red-hot and by default nigh-on inaccessible. They hover too close to the maître d’, then wrinkle their noses when, finally, a pair of empty stools is offered.
Personally, I think they are fools. I have become a huge fan of eating at the counter. Yes, I love pomp, ceremony, prim tablecloths and the finest of Michelin faffing, but I also like a fast, informal, delicious dinner. So if you’re determined to try the burnt onion butter at Kitty Fisher’s, I’d suggest rolling up after 9pm and requesting a counter seat.
If you’re a couple, it is more intimate than a standard table at any of the other plutonium-grade hip dining spots. You are cheek to cheek, conspiring, with food and drink to talk about — which are, let’s be frank, the sexiest topics. Never marry anyone who doesn’t like dinner, because dinner happens every evening and it should be jolly. If one of you thinks a banana and a crispbread will suffice, it’s going to be a bloody long slog until your ruby anniversary.
I used to only eat at the counter in America. I remember my first jobs in Los Angeles in the 1990s, sitting barside in the pokiest, most down-at-heel dives, drinking beer, eating butterfly shrimp and thinking: ‘This could never happen in Britain. We couldn’t eat within the eyeline of a bartender. Far too awkward. And imagine if a stranger pulled up a chair and spoke?’ But somewhere along the way, London loosened up. We realised that if we wanted to make restaurants fit in with our all-hours lifestyles, we had to work with them. And if that means eating pork belly squeezed between two strangers, next to the hot plate, in the earshot of angry, shouty chefs, well, suck it up; it’s probably the best pork belly in town.
There are a few rules to counter dining:
1. Put the camera away. Most berks carrying an £800 Nikon digital SLR need to be taken outside and asked who exactly they think wants to see all 77 photos of the barbecued lamb ribs. Not even your mother is that concerned with what you had for dinner. Counter photographers are the new DJ booth lurkers. And don’t get me started on tripods.
2. You mustn’t treat the kitchen brigade like a safari park full of saucepan-wielding monkeys. Do not film the sous chef sniffing his armpit and then post it on your blog with the hashtag #awks and a sad-face emoji.
3. No questions. Do not hassle the chef about the CV of the cow in the beef-cheek bourguignon. The chef has had four hours’ sleep since last Wednesday. He does not want to redo that garnish just so you can Instagram it.
In fact, the counter should have its own code of conduct, something like: ‘I, the diner, shall feign polite non-interest in the entire kitchen crew unless I am directly spoken to, at which point I will be charming but brief. I promise to ignore the fruity language, administrative balls-ups and examples of gentle workplace bullying that this counter seat permits me to witness. In return, the kitchen will pretend not to overhear me talking on the phone to my Labrador. They will not gossip about who I was dining with, or indeed report that I was tipsy with my shoes off at 3pm on a Tuesday.’ ES
LONDON’S TOP COUNTERS
Drop in around 7pm before catching a film at the Curzon Mayfair and ask how the evening is looking. Staff usually suggest coming by after the film’s ended as the counter will be free by then.
Order 12-year-old Galician dairy cow steak (£80 for two)
Find it: 10 Shepherd Market, W1; kittyfishers.com
A seat at the counter affords a front-row view of the chefs hard at work, rustling up seared scallops and onglet steaks for the raucous crowd.
Order A helping of unctuous polenta (£9.50). It’s the sultan of side dishes
Find it: 34 Rupert Street, W1; thepalomar.co.uk
Settle in at one of the 16 dangerously comfy seats at the kitchen bar or, for views of handsome Italian bartenders stirring up Negronis, opt for one of the eight at the cocktail bar. The counter seats at this Spitalfields brasserie are held back for walk-ins.
Order Half poussin with fennel and salsa verde (£12)
Find it: 65A Brushfield Street, E1; blixen.co.uk
Watch Fitzrovia go by at Portland’s window-side bar. This is one of the hottest spots in town, perfect for solo dining.
Order Barbecued white asparagus with smoked hollandaise and truffle (£10) followed by Old Spot pig with heritage beetroot and red onion (£22)
Find it: 113 Great Portland Street, W1; portlandrestaurant.co.uk
Bag a spot at the semicircular glass and marble bar at the reopened West End favourite. Perch on a plush velvet chair, which conveniently swivels so you can spot the Beckhams being ushered in.
Order The Ivy hamburger (£14.50) and a glass of champagne (£13.25)
Find it: 1-5 West Street, WC2; the-ivy.co.uk
Gawp at the chefs’ insane sushi skills while sitting counterside at this dimly lit Japanese hot spot (Kobe beef with ponzu sauce, below left). There’s so much theatre happening in the kitchen, you’ll have the perfect excuse to totally ignore your date. Do book in advance, especially for such a compelling ringside seat.
Order The three-course tasting menu (£60)
Find it: 2 Ham Yard, W1; engawa.uk
East London’s cool kids have been slinking to The Richmond since it opened this spring for seafood (fried prawns, above) and oysters (the daily ‘happy hour’ means you can knock them back from £1 a pop) and a standard 2am finish.
Order One of the seven varieties of oyster (duh!) on offer (from £2), washed down with a fiery lime, chilli and tequila shooter (£6) if you’re feeling bold
Find it: 316 Queensbridge Road, E8; therichmond hackney.com
Dining at the marble-top bar in J Sheekey affords A-list star-spotting and eavesdropping. Whether it’s Alan Carr or Damian Lewis, you are guaranteed to spy a familiar face as you feast on a dozen oysters.
Order Plateau de fruits de mer, from £36.50pp
Find it: 28 St Martin’s Court, WC2; j-sheekey.co.uk