- Matthew Keyte
London is renowned for its Michelin-starred restaurants and for having challenged Paris for the title of the gastronomic capital of Europe. But if you are looking for a dining experience that goes beyond simply excellent cuisine, then London also boasts an extraordinary restaurant subculture that celebrates eccentricity, zaniness, and the downright odd. Here’s our guide to 10 of London’s quirkiest venues.
Sarastro is located on Drury Lane in the heart of the West End and London’s theatre-land, so has a wonderfully over-the-top and theatrical feel to it. The restaurant, sited in an old pub, is named after a character in the Mozart opera, The Magic Flute. The interior features include banisters taken from the Royal Opera House, erotic artworks in the lavatories and old props and theatrical items dotted about. There are 10 opera boxes on three sides of the restaurant, each of them based on a different aesthetic style – so you will find an English, Gothic, Rococo, Byzantine, and Ottoman style area, with a Royal Box in the centre of the room. The cuisine is Mediterranean and Turkish in style and features dishes such as Anatolian lamb, chicken topkapi, veal chops, and a few French classics like boeuf bourguignon.
Sarastro, 126 Drury Lane, London, WC2B 5SU, UK, +44 020 7836 0101
There really is very little that is normal or mundane about Abracadabra in the West End. Opened in 2005 the cuisine on offer is Russian and East European, so expect to find steaks, meatballs, and stroganoff on the menu. A brief look around the restaurant will reveal lots of photographs of the owner with none other than Cherie Blair and hidden phallic symbols. The venue has even been officially blessed by Orthodox Archpriest Konstantin Tatarinev. There is a mix of tables and booths dotted around the restaurant floor, with each booth having its own theme, from Disney cartoons, puppets, vintage French advertising posters, and gold discs from Sinatra and Elvis. There is also a revolving table in the centre that moves each hour to provide the different view for booth-bound diners.
Abracadabra, 91 Jermyn Street, St James, London, SW1Y 6JB, UK, +44 020 7930 3111
Taking its name from former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s term for his sex parties, Bunga Bunga in Battersea is a mad collection of Italian kitsch and comic cliches. You enter the restaurant through an Italian phone box before meeting a bar, shaped in the form of a gondola, and murals of Venice on the walls. Karaoke nights are dedicated to opera classics and cocktails have names such as ‘The Colosseum’, ‘The Fiat 500’, and ‘The Leaning Tower of Pisa’. There is a tribute wall to Berlusconi and lamps made from old Vespa helmets. The food is mainly pizzas, including the wonderfully named ‘Julius Cheeser’ and others that reference attendees to Berlusconi’s soirees. There is a Sistine Stairway with a reproduction of Michelangelo’s work on the ceilings and walls.
Bunga Bunga, 37 Battersea Bridge, Battersea, London, SW11 3BA, UK, +44 020 7095 0360
At first glance, Buona Sera on the King’s Road in Chelsea might sound like any other Italian restaurant in the capital. The menu is contemporary Italian so expect a wide range of antipasti, secondi, and pasta and risotto dishes, with unusual Italian wines such as Pinot Grigio, Barbera, and Sangiovese. Particular secondi to watch out for include lasagne bolognese, spaghetti di mare, fricassee di pollo, spiedino di carne and bistecca. Where Buona Sera gets quirky is in the interior design and their approach to seating, as the tables and seats are arranged on two levels as if they were bunk beds. This means that if you are seated on the second level your food will suddenly appear in the hands of a waiter who must display amazing skill as they climb up a ladder with plates in hand – it certainly makes for an unusual evening.
Buona Sera, 289 King’s Road, London, SW3 5EW, UK, +44 020 7352 8827
Dans le Noir?
Dans le Noir? is a concept that emerged in the late 1990s in France before the first restaurant opened in 2004. There are now Dans le Noir? restaurants in London, Paris, New York, Brussels, and Barcelona. The concept is simple – all of the food is served in total darkness, by waiting staff who are blind and from menus that are kept deliberately vague. The thinking behind this approach to dining is that by cutting off the sense of sight, the other senses, of smell and taste, will be heightened and excited to a greater extent. Diners must rely upon the blind waiting staff who are the only ones to know what is being served. Diners enter the bar area where they must remove all items that give off light and choose from one of four set menus – the Red, which offers meat dishes, the Blue, which is seafood, the White, which is exotic, and the Green vegetarian option. No more about the food is revealed until after the meal.
Dans le Noir, 30-31 Clerkenwell Green, London, EC1R 0DU, UK, +44 020 7253 1100
Powder Keg Diplomacy
Powder Keg Diplomacy is set in a Victorian conservatory with original iron features and provides food and drink inspired by Victoriana, patriotism and the British Empire, with recipes drawn from old cookery books and using ingredients sourced from rare breed suppliers and independent breweries. The restaurant was established in 2011 with a menu that serves up classic British cuisine, such as Orkney crab, English grilled asparagus, Scottish salmon, Romney Marsh lamb and a cheeseboard that includes Waterloo, made with Guernsey milk, and Smoked Lincolnshire Poacher. The wines and beers on offer are also extensive – there are cocktails made according to old recipes and using classic London gins and liquors, beers from amongst the 40 microbreweries in London, and wine from English vineyards in Kent, Sussex and Gloucestershire. If you fancy something French you can choose a vintage from the ‘Friend and Foes’ menu too.
Powder Keg Diplomacy, 147 St John’s Hill, London, SW11 1TQ, UK, +44 020 7450 6457
Cats Cafe des Artistes
The Cats Cafe des Artistes in Finsbury Park is run as a family restaurant with a slight difference. The theme is Thai – only taken to the extreme. There is a tuk-tuk parked up as you enter to restaurant, images of the King and Queen of Thailand, and the furniture is of dark wood that was brought all the way from South East Asia. The owners also have a penchant for cats – there are statues of domestic cats, wild cats, and cats from the jungle. On the walls are also signed celebrity photos, so you sit and enjoy food with such British luminaries as Michael Caine, Jeremy Beadle, and comedy duo Ant and Dec watching over you. The menu is, of course, Thai so expect spring rolls, stir fry meats, spare ribs, curries and lots of seafood.
Café des Artistes, 79 Stroud Green Road, London N4 3EG, UK, +44 020 7281 5557
Silk is part of the 5-star Courthouse Hotel in Soho that was once the Great Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court. The building dates back to the early 1800s and has an extraordinary history. It was here that Charles Dickens was a young court reporter, Oscar Wilde pursued a libel claim against the Marquis of Queensbury, and Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were prosecuted for the possession of drugs in the 1960s. Silk is based in the old Court No.1 and still possesses the original wooden panelling and courtroom layout. The name plays both on a barristers’ silk gown and the Silk Road to the Orient as the menu focuses upon Eastern flavours and spices. The cuisine is variously Indian, Chinese, and Thai and incorporates Eastern spices with British produce. Look out for signature dishes such as jungli maas – Kentish roe deer with chilli paste and smoked vegetables.
Silk at the Courthouse, 19-21 Great Marlborough Street, London W1F 7HL, UK, +44 020 7297 5555
Les Trois Garçons
Les Trois Garçons is situated in a converted Victorian pub in Shoreditch that dates back to 1880. Originally the three owners – the eponymous Les Trois Garçons – lived in the pub from 1996, before turning the ground floor into a spectacularly opulent restaurant famous for its overblown decor and excellent food. At Les Trois Garçons you will find stuffed animal heads on the walls, the most garish chandeliers, and vintage handbags hanging from the lights. It is all very idiosyncratic and very surreal, and is the creation of a Swede, a Malaysian, and a Frenchman, which perhaps explains the more baroque approach to decor. The cuisine is classic French with some contemporary British influences – so you will find escargots, foie gras, lobster, chateaubriand, as well as fillet of cod.
Les Trois Garçons, 1 Club Row, London, E1 6JX, UK, +44 020 7613 1924
Archipelago in Fitzrovia serves up all the types of meal that you have heard of being consumed in the tropics of Africa and in the Far East, but have never had the opportunity to try. In fact, you might not have been aware that you even wanted to try them. Entering the restaurant you encounter a world of culinary delight. On the menu you’ll find exotic ingredients such as crocodile, snakemeat, mealworms, and various insects. The decor is a similarly international flavour, as you will find golden Buddha statues, dwarf palm trees, and peacock feathers. Dishes to watch out for include crocodile in vine leaves, zebra jerky with biltong and boerewors, pan-fried chermoula crickets, bison rump, kangaroo skewers, and escolar fish steak – supposedly the most dangerous fish to consume in the world.
Archipelago, 53 Cleveland Street, London, W1T 4JJ, UK, +44 020 7383 3346