Tapas in London has come a long way over the past few years, with high-end tapas restaurants joining the ranks along with more relaxed bars. Covent Garden is has turned into a hub for great Spanish food, with dedicated jamón shops, pintxos bars and restaurants serving up Basque, Catalan and Balearic dishes.
The Port House
Restaurant, Spanish, Tapas, $$$
After establishing three successful restaurants in the Dublin area, the owners of the Port House set up shop on the Strand with a cosy and atmospheric restaurant. The tapas menu is impressively extensive but the drinks are the real hit here, with a dedicated rotating gin and tonic menu and a Spanish and Portuguese-heavy port and wine list.
Bar, Cocktail Bar, Restaurant, Spanish, Tapas, $$$
PIX PINTXOS is modelled after the classic tapas bars of Spain where you pick over a few plates with drinks: it’s mainly a bar with a whole array of pintxos laid out for you to help yourself. The atmosphere is buzzy with music constantly playing and there’s a good selection of both hot and cold pintxos, but PIX PINTXOS definitely works better as a place to nip in for snacks rather than a full meal. They do, however, offer all-you-can-eat pintxos and unlimited cava for set price on Sundays.
The Covent Garden branch of Jamon Jamon (so named because if one of something – especially jamón – is good, then two must be superb) joins Camden, Islington and Belsize Park sites in a mini-chain. As well as classic tapas plates like albondigas, calamares, tortilla and their namesake ham, Jamon Jamon serves five kinds of paella and traditional Spanish desserts.
Barrafina, created by the Hart brothers who are also behind Quo Vadis and Tacos El Pastor, is the gold standard for tapas in London, and Covent Garden is blessed with two of them: one on Adelaide Street and the other on Drury Lane. A gorgeous marble bar is the focal point and the menu features some Catalan and Balearic dishes, like ortiguillas (sea anemone) and Frit Mallorquin (lamb offal and vegetables). Not only is the food fantastic but it’s fascinating to watch the chefs at work.
As well as the Adelaide Street site, there’s also a Barrafina on Drury Lane – very handy as there are no reservations and seemingly permanent queues at both locations. This site has a similar layout with a central bar but a totally different menu, with more inventive plates like crab buns and cuttlefish empanadas, and selection of tortillas and eggs.
Eneko Axta, of the three-Michelin-starred Arzumendi in Bilbao, opened his London restaurant in 2016 in the One Aldwych Hotel. It’s less formal (and less expensive) than Arzumendi but the quality of the food is still extremely high. The focus is on Basque ingredients and flavours handled in a playful way, like the ibérico ham, mushroom duxelle and Basque muffin ‘Hot Hog’. The all-Spanish wine list also features some bottles from Eneko and his uncle Gorka’s own winery.
Condesa is a small tapas joint that fuses Spanish and Mexican flavours, so you can dine on jamón ibérico and boquerones at the same time as pig cheek tacos and octopus ceviche. The specials are more eclectic so keep an eye on those too and you can get wines by the half carafe, so you can chop and change from the list with ease.
Casa Manolo started life in Salamanca, where the owners produced artisanal meats and cheeses. Now there are five London locations that serve a range of tapas dishes but it’s the cured meat where Casa Manolo really shines. Pop into the tiny spot on the Strand for a few plates of pata negra and a glass or two of Rioja.
Enrique Tomas is a jamón ibérico store with branches across Spain, and two shops in London. You can’t miss it as the windows are packed full of legs of ham. You can sample the meats and other deli products in-store as well as buy them to take home. If you want a taste but can’t shell out for a whole ham, grab one of their sandwiches instead.
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There’s always a party atmosphere at Salvador & Amanda thanks to their weekday happy hour, live flamenco shows and late night dancing. All your favourite tapas dishes are present and correct but if you’re in a celebratory mood, they offer a sucking pig and tapas party menu – a whole roasted Spanish suckling pig served with Seville oranges and caramelised shallots plus a mixture of tapas plates.
The Opera Tavern is one of the five restaurants in the Salt Yard Group and is set in a former pub that’s been given a makeover with an open grill on the ground floor. Like the other establishments in the group, the menu is a blend of Spanish and Italian influences, and you can get traditional snacks like pardon peppers and habas fritas as well as more creative dishes like roasted wood pigeon with crispy morcilla, tiger prawns with piquillo and prawn bisque, sourdough and lardo, and their signature Iberico pork and foie gras burger.