I choose the restaurant on a recommendation from my mother. We don’t always agree on these things but Barrafina has a strong reputation outside my family too. It’s a cold Thursday evening during a dystopian realignment of international socioeconomic order, and from the outside the restaurant is a glowing example of lively, diverse and wealthy neoliberal London. I hope it’s not an echo chamber.
The evening starts inauspiciously. It turns out there are actually two Barrafinas equidistant from Covent Garden tube, and Claire has gone to the other. Nobly she volunteers to come to me on Drury Lane, so I step inside. The interior is mostly background, blending metal, exposed brick and white paint. Inoffensively but warmly, it sets off an L-shaped metal counter that dominates the room. Guests sit one side, chefs and waiters work at the linear kitchen on the other. I suppose it’s as close as you can get to being in a professional kitchen without picking up a paring knife, if that’s your thing. I suppress the ‘Nam-style flashbacks from being this close to working chefs. The design brings a pulse to the room though, and the diverse cooking smells that drift my way in just a few minutes excite me. Sam and Eddie Hart — who own this restaurant group — apparently started the trend for ‘no reservations’ in many London restaurants. From a professional point of view it is an elegant solution to maximising the efficiency of your tables, or bar in this case. As a customer I find it mildly annoying. But then I don’t deal well with lack of control. And the queue is a cruel mistress. Only complete parties are sat, so I must wait until my companion gets here. I am queuing against the unknown. And have to watch as a table of two arrive after and are sat before me.
Claire walks in and orders a glass of Rioja from the all-Spanish wine list. I tell her I’m not drinking at the moment after spending October making up for working four months of nights. She replies she’s about to live abroad for a year and it would be a shame not to have one. I agree immediately. They were a noble ten days.
We’re sat and by chance I have the best seat in the house, looking directly down the long side of the bar near the corner of the L. I admit it is exciting viewing. I feel the energy and concentration of creative professionals working against the clock spill into the room. The staff seem to be allowed to be themselves; our waiter has piercings and a Guns N’ Roses t-shirt visible beneath his uniform. He takes us through the menu and specials. All are simple combinations of two or three main ingredients of Spanish origin that walk the line between novel and familiar expertly, as you would expect at this level. I would eat everything, and we follow his advice and pick five dishes. I confess I have reservations about ‘small plates’. We have ordered three snacks or starters and two mains and they are brought…in precisely that order. But without the kitchen having to co-ordinate sending them together as two courses. Is it really a problem? No. But my traditional restaurant background prejudices me into feeling it’s a bit of a cop-out.
Meanwhile I have ordered a glass of the Hart Bros Special Selection sherry. Fortified wine is my final frontier of alcohol, and I reason if I break the bantam duck of sobriety it might as well be in the spirit of discovery. I’m fortunate to have attended several wine tastings and courses over the years, and the drier sherries have made me want to gag in the past. This one is a Manzanilla, a lighter variety of Fino, the driest kind. And actually it’s wonderful. Supple, slightly nutty, and crucially dry enough to cut through the litre of olive oil I’m about to consume. Maybe the peculiarly British culture of drinking wine in isolation from food was the problem before.
The snacks or starters arrive. Fried padron peppers are a moreish salty, capsicum crunch, their vibrant colour offering a small, delusional reassurance it might be a vaguely healthy dish. Piquillo pepper croquetas again hit the spot as deep-fried stuff with cheese does, and pan con tomate refreshes the palette. It’s simple cooking executed very well. And I write that as someone who believes simplicity is the ultimate, elusive creative goal. Claire sticks to red. I unleash my inner 60-year-old woman and have another sherry.
The room is packed now, and there are maybe twenty people waiting for tables. The lights do not dim. It is slightly unnerving being surrounded by strangers all gauging how quickly you are eating tapas, like I was thirty minutes before. However, there are no turn times, so we feel no rush. Watch away peasants. But we’re watching too now; the mains are taking their time. It’s not a disastrously long wait, but it interrupts the flow of the meal. When they arrive they offer good contrast. Chargrilled seabass with a vinegary tomato sauce and slow-cooked pigs’ cheeks with cauliflower. The fish is medium-rare which I like but we were not informed about when ordered. The char on the bass and acidity of the tomatoes are heavy artillery for the palette, but they balance each other deftly. Pigs’ cheeks are soft and sticky, however the cauliflower garnish stands out for me. The perfect bite, some chilli, and heaps of garlic and olive oil. Si señor. It’s direct cookery. The sort my fictional Spanish grandmother would deliver. And although I don’t engage any chef in conversation, it’s hard not to feel empathy and warmth towards the men and women a metre away who are serving us such a characterful, straightforward supper.
Now, by this point our waiter has told us that Claire’s next glass of wine is on him by way of apology for the delay. This surprises me slightly: we haven’t even mentioned it between ourselves, let alone complained to him, but it’s a gesture gratefully received. Dealing with these sorts of problems is, I think, really where you earn your money as Front of House. Experience has taught me that quick and clear communication is key. But it takes courage to deliver bad news, and skill to do it well. Comping drinks is a standard route to recover from the hiccups that occur in every restaurant as a matter of course. Desserts can be thrown in if it’s really bad. The gross profit on wine and coffee is typically the highest across food and beverage (steak being the lowest — you’re gonna pay for that shit), so the real cost to the business is minimised. It’s also a quick and effective method of tranquilising any inconvenience without interfering in the kitchen mid-service; chefs know when they’re being slammed of course, and asking where table fifty’s mains are doesn’t make them appear any quicker. According to restauranteur-god Danny Meyer every problem is an opportunity to provide excellent service. And he’s right — I’ve been tipped by tables that have been one disaster after another because communication was good and the problems were dealt with, but that is rare. Comping has a dark side too though. Guests get wise to it, and you have the paradox of regulars that complain on every visit before they’re told unfortunately there aren’t any tables available. Finally there are battles you can’t win. Slowly I’ve come to believe there are a small number of people, usually couples, who go out to complain, often after finishing most of their meal. They seem to live together in a Hobbesian world of one-star TripAdvisors. When I was younger I used to drink and/or cry after shit services with these tables. Now I’m more stoic. And just drink.
Back to Barrafina. Our waiter recommends a chocolate tart for dessert. This comes with two complimentary glasses of Oloroso or semi-sweet sherry, quite light and with a toasted hazelnut character that pairs well. For me the tart is an understated masterpiece of balance and personality. On the palette vanilla ice cream is sweet, the chocolate is dark and slightly bitter, and the pastry brings acidity with lemon worked into it somehow. Texturally the ice cream melts, the chocolate cloys and the toasted almonds crunch. Finally the coolness of the ice cream chases the warmth of the tart. Each mouthful pops with fresh combinations.
I have a few superficial quibbles with the reservations policy, the small plates concept and the interrogation-grade lighting, but for me Barrafina is an exemplary restaurant that deserves its reputation and plaudits. It has soul. There is something special about not just watching but feeling chefs create simple, punchy and delicious food. The experience is authentic in an era where that word often translates into restauranteurs just buying up whole junk shops of mismatched chairs. Perhaps the lack of head chef calling checks and food being sent when it’s ready actually makes it more familial too. Openness defines the experience, from the design to the atmosphere to the food. As a customer you lack the perception of control you have in more traditional restaurants but, in letting Barrafina do its thing, you get to share in the family environment it offers. And this takes the restaurant very close to the meaning of that word, and makes it restorative. Unusually but not unsurprisingly it is a successful formula. We leave and walk to Charing Cross through the hinterland around Leicester Square at night. Men in kilts shout at us. Has the populist revolt begun? We say goodbye. I drunkenly dodge traffic on The Strand.