Quirky. Peculiar. Unexpected. These terms have been adopted by noughties commercial copywriters and unleashed with great vigour on the restaurant world. We find the now ubiquitous references to 'quirky restaurants' in descriptions of eateries offering uninspired dishes served up on unoriginal plates, or in the name of painfully dreary drinks in a vain attempt to jazz them up. The true meaning of culinary quirkiness has got lost at sea, much like the notion of an honest man in the Oval Office.
So we're sharing our favourite quirky restaurants in London, where you can find everything from opera-singing Turkish waiters to gourmet caramelised insects. Read on to discover some unusual eateries hidden in secret London locations, selected by local foodie and fledgling Plum Guide restaurant critic Harriet.
1. La Bodega Negra - A Hidden Quirky Restaurant
"A little hidden gem in the city, until Kylie Minogue was papped making a quick exit via its front door."
Mexican food. Soho. A sex shop. Sounds secretive and underground, doesn't it? Our first quirky London restaurant is indeed that : a little hidden gem in the city (until Kylie Minogue was papped making a quick exit via its front door). Located in the heart of central London, this badly-kept-secret of a restaurant lies in wait for those willing to take a chance and venture down the rabbit hole of the unknown in the name of culinary quirkiness and brilliance (because it is brilliant. IT REALLY IS).
Get yourself to Soho - your closest tube stops are Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Circus - and scramble through the bustling city to reach historic Old Compton street, where will find two grubby neon signs that read “Adult Video” and “Peep Show.” Peering out above them are two glowing eyes, beckoning you to take one step further. Behold:
Push on past the eyes (if you can tear yourself away, this is the Mona Lisa of the 21st century) and enter a side door where a rather large gentleman will ask you for your name. Of course you have booked in advance (NB - booking ahead essential), so he lets you in. Down the stairs you go, tentatively feeling through the darkness until, all of a sudden you find yourself in a subterranean den, which looks like a cross between a seedy Soho love den and a chic version of The Alamo in Mexico. Chairs hang casually from the ceiling. A solid wall of barrels ("Tequila?" you ask hopefully) lines one side of the room.
Decor drooling aside, let's cut to the chase. The quirky food is what we're here for! Starting with the drinks menu, there's an extravagant list of mezcals and tequilas that will have even the most seasoned Latin American drinker struggling to make a choice. Yet these fiery liquors aren’t just meant for your glass. Open the food menu and you'll find everything from a mezcal-infused pork belly with salsa verde, to soft shell crab tacos in chipotle cream. The flavours are authentic Mexican, but you certainly won’t find your average Tex-Mex fare here. Whether you're simply looking for a mezcal and tequila smash-up or feel like gorging on ceviche that would bring a tear to even El Chapo’s eye, then we urge you to book now and give yourself an excuse to visit this Soho-based quirky restaurant/sex shop.
2. Archipelago - Exploring the Exotic
"Situated on Cleveland street in Fitzrovia (tube tip: Googe Street or Warren Street), Archipelago is a culinary mecca for all things weird and wonderful"
We've all heard of her: that girl, the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, who went on some crazy trip to a far-flung island last year and ended up eating insects and snakes for breakfast for three days straight. Yet no one ever seems to have met this mysterious gastronomic lunatic of a person. Well, perhaps it's time to dispel the myth and become ‘that girl’. Situated on Cleveland street in Fitzrovia (tube tip: Goodge Street or Warren Street), Archipelago is a culinary mecca for all things weird and wonderful. The tagline forebodes a quirky restaurant if we ever saw one: "Exploring the Exotic". Walking into this restaurant, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into a drawing room belonging to a mad eccentric aunt. It's crammed full with a life-time of foreign adventure mementos. Carved Buddhas, peacock feathers, dragons and astrolabes compete for your attention and affection on the higgledy-piggledy walls. It's a small room even without all the props, which makes Archipelago a very intimate dining experience.
The infamous Archipelago menu echoes the restaurant’s quirky decoration. While it does cater for the ordinary, it's designed for the adventurous. Jerk alpaca, kangaroo skewers and vine leaf-wrapped crocodile dishes are just the tip of the iceberg. If you are of a romantic disposition but want to test your date’s mettle, then why not order the chocolate covered locusts to share? If that hasn’t put you off, then go forth and multiply with a portion of caramelised mealworms ,or whole bees dipped in ice cream. It's easy to read the menu items and picture the setting of the room and think: "Surely this is a gimmick?" But that couldn't be further from the truth. Archipelago is a first-rate dining experience, with each dish of exotic fauna being cooked to perfection. It's not for the faint-hearted, but hey, it's quirky and something a bit different.
3. Sarastro - A theatre-like restaurant
The West End: home to all things theatrical. However, you don’t need to go to the theatre to experience London’s world famous entertainment district. Sarastro, located on the renowned Drury Lane, offers every kind of entertainment, from 80s Latin rhythms to four piece operatic quartets - all whilst you dine at tables inside theatre-style boxes.
"The whole restaurant resembles a theatre, with styles varying from English, Gothic and Rococo to Ottoman and Byzantine."
In fact, the whole restaurant resembles a theatre, with styles varying from English, Gothic and Rococo to Ottoman and Byzantine. The rooms are crammed with old props from countless old West End shows. There are secluded dining boxes for those looking for a more private experience, but the best thing about Sarastro is that you can become part of the show. Gipsy bands and opera singers will have you dancing on tables or clapping your hands with sheer joy whilst you tuck into an array of Mediterranean dishes with a strong Turkish influence.
While the food is good, it doesn’t quite live up to the sublime standards of La Bodega Negra - nor is it as outlandish as the menu found in Archipelago. But the price is fair, and let's face it: with such incredible live entertainment, the menu is not the focus of this quirky little restaurant.
Sarastro’s ethos is almost entirely orientated towards the dining experience; it's the performances and the unique setting (including some infamous erotic art work in the lady’s bathroom) that keep the tables full and make this place truly one of a kind. You wouldn’t expect anything less from the heart of London's West End though, would you?
4. Opium - Cocktail and dim sum parlour
We’ve all been there. It's 2am in London town. You've been at the ales/lager/gin/vodka/[insert medicine of choice here] and all you want to do is gorge on mountains of steaming hot, delicious dim sum (and maybe another strong cocktail to wash it all down). Ok, there's a chance you haven't been there, because you haven't made it to London yet. But it's always good to be prepared for these scenarios. So we're going to let you in on a little secret. And this, the 4th quirky London restaurant on our list, certainly takes a leaf from the Book of Secrecy. It's such a local favourite, we don't want to give the game away with too many clues. All we're saying is look for the jade door on Gerrard Street, in the heart of China Town (tip: nearest tube Leicester Square).
Styling itself as a ‘cocktail and dim sum parlour’ in an opium den setting, Opium is one of China Town’s greatest restaurants. A dimly lit staircase makes the initial entrance feel almost derelict, but once you reach the bar you'll find yourself transported to a surreal room full of retro furniture, Chinese apothecary bottles and a range of other items plastered with unintelligible labels.
In terms of food the menu is short and simple: dim sum, dim sum, dim sum. With a recent surge in popularity, the Cantonese tea house speciality has become a firm favourite among London foodies. However, as always with popularity, comes the peril of poor quality. Luckily Opium doesn’t fall under this category. Go for the dim sum platter and taste everything from creamy mushroom and truffle to spicy duck. The dim sum here is only one half of the story though. It would be a grave sin not try one or two of the bar’s notorious experimental cocktails. With drinks being served in old medicine bottles, tea pots and steaming beakers, it truly feels like an opium-toting speakeasy sort of vibe, albeit minus the opium. Ranking right at the top of our list of recommendations is the Opium #6 cocktail. Try to get a seat at the bar and watch with awe as the highly knowledgeable and friendly mixologists work their magic.
Photo credits (from top to bottom, left to right):