I arrived at Barrafina in Soho less than thrilled. I was going to be in Spain in little over a fortnight, so what was I doing in a Spanish restaurant in London, of all places, when soon I’d be eating the same things in their country of origin, where surely they would taste three times as good and cost a third of the price?
We elbowed our way into the crammed space. My date, a Spaniard, fired staccato bursts of his mother tongue at the waiter who returned a volley of gibberish. I hoped we’d be kicked out — it was too busy, surely.
But no, following those earnest deliberations, we were ushered through the throngs to the corner. The end of the line. A counter below a mirror. The Spaniard (my date, not the waiter) explained that there was a smaller menu we could order from while we stood in the queue, waiting for stools at the bar overlooking the bustling kitchen. There was a chance — no guarantees — that we’d actually get to perch on one of these and, with that, gain the privilege of being able to order from a bigger menu.
I waited for him to suggest we go elsewhere. It seemed silly to stay. When he didn’t, I reminded him there were heaps of restaurants close by where we could actually get a table.
The Spaniard said he was used to this — in Spain, this happens all the time: people stand, they chat and they eat. That’s just how it’s done. But if I wanted to leave, we could. I paused. I didn’t have the heart to dampen the joy in his eyes — they were sparkling, shinier than a homecoming — and so I said, “No, it’s, okay, let’s stay”.
We inched along the mirror. He quickly took the lead in ordering. Our Estrella Galicia beers arrived. “This tastes like home,” he said approvingly. I nodded. I didn’t tell him I thought the lager was timid, unremarkable. At least it took the edge off the bright lights and ringing chatter, though.
As soon as the croquetas arrived, my grumpiness departed. Ravenous, I ate mine with my fingers — which isn’t done in Spain, the Spaniard informed me, as he primly waited for a fork. I bit through crispy crunchiness into soft béchamel flecked with ham. Woah! Who cares if you’re standing in a crowded restaurant when you’ve got gooey cheese in your mouth. Things were looking up.
Up next: chorizo, the diameter and colour of a cigarillo, wrapped in pastry and deep-fried. It was exactly as heavenly as it sounds. We’d barely finished those before a banderilla each arrived: a toothpick piercing a row of green runner beans; at its end, a quail’s egg wrapped in an anchovy fillet.
By now I was feeling positively perky. Maybe this was the future of dining — maybe the Spanish had got it right with this standing thing. After all, there’s a recent study that says sitting is the new smoking — that we should be less sedentary to avoid the risk of early death.
We were halfway along the queue now. A waitress, also Spanish, arrived; she conferred with the Spaniard and then motioned us to follow her.
“Look at us, we’re jumping the queue,” the Spaniard said gleefully. We were indeed – bypassing the English speakers (suckers!) in line, and taken to a little table outside — ringside seats where we could watch the circus that is Dean Street on a warm, spring evening.
We pored over the new, bigger menu. I agreed to all of the Spaniard’s suggestions, grateful that I’m too innumerate to multiply by 17. A flock of young Spanish women arrived at the entrance, their bottoms hovering at eye-level. They flitted off, revealing the table opposite: young American TV execs (or maybe they were in music or advertising) preening and caterwauling over white wine. One was recounting sexual escapades that he did in the name of business development. Billable hours. I turned away: a junkie was offering to sing for us (we politely declined). It was all very Soho.
More food. A classic Spanish omelette — the tortilla — browned on the outside, oozing and yolky as I sliced into it, my knife occasionally slicing through the soft squares of potato. So simple, yet so yummy. Then, what was supposedly the pièce de résistance — pan-seared octopus — was set down.
“Isn’t this awful?” the Spaniard said straight-faced, and I muttered that yes, maybe it was a little bland.
It turns out he was joking — he was actually in raptures over the dish. He threatened to eat it all if I didn’t like it. I tried another piece. It was certainly very tender, bits of it even creamy-soft. A light dusting of paprika, along with the capers strewn around the plate, added some character. Still, I’d have opted for more croquetas instead, any day.
The last plate arrived. Chickpea ropa vieja: bacon bits swimming in a meaty brown stew, with tapioca mash. The Spaniard crinkled his nose, disappointed; it wasn’t how they made it in Spain. “I’ve never had it in Spain, so I don’t mind,” I said, sneaking in a few extra spoonfuls from under his nose. Brilliant.
The bill came. I managed not to wince. £34 each (just shy of R600) for casual Sunday night tapas. Was it worth it? I wondered as I hugged the Spaniard goodbye at Piccadilly Circus tube. Maybe not.
This article first appeared in the 22 May 2018 edition of Business Day.