Sam and Eddie Hart seem unlikely contenders for the title of the ‘bus drivers of the London restaurant scene’ with their posh accents, their extensive knowledge of food and wine as well as a great sense of hospitality inherited from their hotelier father (Hambleton Hall). But in one respect they most certainly deserve this title.
Having kept their customers waiting for four years since the opening of their first Barrafina, their classy tapas bar on Frith Street, Soho – where demand is such that the 30 seats serve over 1,000 customers a week – they have within the space of a year opened a second and then a third branch. By restaurant standards, that is certainly the equivalent of seeing no buses for a long while and then watching several of them arrive simultaneously.
The second Barrafina, on the corner of Adelaide Street in Covent Garden, a stone’s throw away from the excellent Terroirs, opened its doors on 7 July 2014 and on 17 July 2015 the hoarding came down on the third Barrafina on Drury Lane. This is close to the intersection with Great Queen Street, where their neighbours include the relatively new The Black Penny, a coffee bar with excellent food, and 32 Great Queen Street, a long-time, no-nonsense favourite British restaurant.
Two openings in a year constitute an unlikely as well as a capital-intensive strategy and, as is so often the case with restaurant openings, this was not how the Harts had planned it.
In fact, when back in 2011 I was interviewing Sam and Eddie for my book The Art of The Restaurateur (published by Phaidon in 2012 and still, annoyingly, not in paperback despite excellent hardback sales to date), they were talking then about a proposed second site on Drury Lane. Silence ensued. Then Adelaide Street opened and when I subsequently quizzed Sam about whether this other proposed site would ever happen he was unusually enigmatic.
Then passing by the new site a week ago I looked through the window of Barrafina and saw Sam and Eddie in outfits they have very much made their own while on duty: a white chef’s jacket over black trousers. They were smiling, as ever, chatting to a few customers already seated at the counter and, even more reassuringly for a hungry customer, their long-time executive chef Nieves Barragán Mohacho was behind the counter, surrounded, as at every restaurant opening, by what looked like far too many staff. They beckoned us in.
After we had passed on our congratulations, Sam told me the history of this site on the corner of the pedestrianised Broad Court, a useful cut between Holborn Station and the Royal Opera House on Bow Street. For as long as I can remember there was a relatively uninspiring pizza and pasta restaurant there. When its lease came to an end the landlord had approached the Harts, and negotiations had almost come to fruition when he decided to take it off the market to develop the flats above. The Harts turned their attention to Adelaide Street. Then it came back on the market again and they decided to proceed with both.
This decision will, I believe, prove highly beneficial to everyone because this is a cracking site for a Barrafina which, although it draws its inspiration from the best tapas bars of Spain, is more a restaurant than a bar because of its prices and because, even more prosaically, there are no other tapas bars in the vicinity to stroll to for the next dish or glass.
The elegant interior has an L shaped counter for the customers, affording them an immediate view across to the chefs and waiting staff, enhanced by lots of natural light. On the bar is a large tap for the beer and by the stoves is a Josper oven close to the display of fish specials of the day under ice. On that day they included bundles of razor clams and the famous red prawns of Roses.
What unites all this is the extremely clear, well-designed place mat that combines as a menu. This colourful sheet of paper is broken down into food on the left, sherry and wines on the right and an appetising black and white drawing of prawns and lemons dead centre. It’s a menu that manages to combine clarity with modernity, in a way that few do.
From it we chose two classic dishes. The first was two slices of pan con tomate, the tomato, olive oil and garlic combination providing several sticky mouthfuls, then a classic tortilla, a perennial favourite, particularly as I can never manage to cook mine so that the outside is crisp and brown and the interior still runny. Then on to two new dishes, an empanada stuffed with oozing black cuttlefish, and a thick slice of toast topped with a pheasant egg and two pieces of black pudding from Burgos, soft and full of rice, their recipe for this very regional dish.
The other advantage of sitting at the counter so close to the chefs is that it is very easy to look on with envy at what others have ordered. I was most taken by the copper pan in which the arroz negro, the black squid ink-sodden rice topped with pale squid tendrils, was served, top of my list for my return. As is a dish new to the Barrafina repertoire simply called ‘crab bun’.
And now that there are 3 Barrafina buses in central London, it should, at least in theory, be easier to get a seat in one of them.
Barrafina 43 Drury Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2B 5AJ
Monday to Saturday, 12-3 pm, 5-11 pm. No reservations.