While owner Russell Norman doesn’t particularly like the tag, Polpo is London’s ‘it’ restaurant. “Trendy restaurants come and go,” says the former Operations Director at Caprice Holdings, “but Polpo’s is in it for the long-haul. Here, we try to keep things real.” Indeed, there’s no sign of this Italian-style tapas bar going anywhere anytime soon, with a long line of people waiting to be seated each and every night. While the critics have piled on the praise, it is the locals that this neighbourhood restaurant is predominantly aimed at – and its loyal roster of Soho regulars is testament to its immediate success.
Found at 41 Beak Street, Polpo is as much about the design and atmosphere as it is about the food. Inside it’s styled on a ‘bacaro’ – an Italian wine bar, albeit with a New York twist – with glossy white subway tiles, reclaimed wooden doors and a copper bar that’s propped up by media types taking well-deserved breathers from their CrackBerries. Indeed, it’s an intimate dining experience to say the least with tables pushed close together, the lighting turned down low and the music cranked up loud. Russell says; “Restaurants aren’t just about food – there are more important considerations than absolute excellence in the kitchen.” Though don’t let Russell’s modesty fool you – the kitchen is nothing if not excellent, with a sumptuous selection of Italian-style sharing plates on its mouthwatering menu. “I have a rule,” says Russell. “If a dish has more than four ingredients we need to take something away. Italian food is simple food done well, and that’s the way it should stay.” Highlights include pizzetta blanca (an all-white, all-cheese pizza bread), pork belly with radicchio and hazelnuts, and cuttlefish risotto. Reassuringly, prices are kept low with the average spend being a mere £28.50; each plate is between £4-7.50, so diners are encouraged to sample three or four per sitting – although not much encouragement is needed! As you’d expect, dinner is particularly busy and a lengthy wait at the bar comes part and parcel at Polpo. That said, bar dining is arguably better than a table here. Russell says; “Ask for seats 40 and 41 at the bar – they’re the best seats in the house.”
With everything stripped back to its bare essentials – both in terms of food and design – it was Polpo that began the trend for casual dining over the stuffy, silver service establishments of yesteryear. But Russell’s confident that the concept he championed isn’t going about to fade out; “It has a way to go,” he says, “and I’m interested to see how far we can take it.” There’s certainly no sign of Russell slowing down with a secondary restaurant, Polpetto, to catch Polpo’s overspill, and the planned launch of Spuntino, a new concept fresh for 2011.
So what trends can we expect on London’s dining scene for 2011? “There’s going to be a lot more casual dining concepts in the coming years,” says Russell, “as well as a slew of smarter chains such as Leon and Canteen. Fusion restaurants will make a comeback, too – when it’s done well fusion is great. And, of course, the revival of British food will continue to gain momentum.” And there you have it; the newly-crowned king of London’s restaurant scene on the venue that made his name and the trends that will shape the coming year.
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