Tapas are the current sex in London and indeed across the UK's food scene. New venues continue to pop-up across the country - the latest trend being for restaurateurs to open Cava/tapas bars where diners can explore the nuances of Spain's bubbly with some Tortilla in tow. Only last week I visited a venue in London - Barrafina - to be told that I'd have to wait at least an hour for a slot as 30 or so parties before me patiently waited for their slices of Jamon. So pretty definitive proof of the fact that this trendy pastime is showing no sign of becoming stale!
Of course, our approach to tapas is quite divorced from its original and even contemporary place in Spanish culture. In Spain, despite the fact that they have become a cuisine in their own right, tapas owe their origins to a humble Andalucian bar snack. The often repeated story tells that bartenders would cover glasses with a saucer or tapa (cover) to keep out flies, the custom progressing to offering cheese or olives to sherry drinkers. Bar owners turned this habit into a regular norm of offering tit-bits to encourage drinking.
Today, even a small village will have at least one bar where the locals go to enjoy drinks, tapas and socialise. It's a lovely sight observing generations of families packing bars to the rafters, drinking, eating, laughing but not getting completely inebriated in classic British fashion. In Madrid, which has many, many (I've lost count) tapas bars, a popular institution is to tapear at the weekend - float from venue to venue with friends, eating a plate of patatas bravas here, some chorizo there....
In contrast, we tend to view tapas as a meat out in itself, and whilst few Spaniards would regard going for tapas as a proper 'dinner', in the UK some restaurateurs have really exploited our love of this wonderful institution to market it as a trendy and expensive pastime. As i've said before, going for tapas can be a fun and tasty experience but it is often marketed as a great value meal out. This is not always the case so be careful how your debts mount- a few tapas, dessert, two espressos and a bottle of wine can equal the cost of a three course dinner for two in a West-End establishment. Average venues abound, so I'd advise you to stick to the list below, or at least try one or two places that I mention.
So here are my five favourite tapas bars in our capital. They only have to satisfy three criteria: offer good food, good value for what's on offer, and don't make you queue for an hour, hence the omission of Barrafina, which I have previously championed. Great food and ambience, but who wants to wait 60 minutes for a platter of Ham Croquetas? Surely they can't be that heavenly....
Aqua Nueva Cava Bar
5th Floor, 240 Regent St, London, W1B 3BR
0207 839 3939
Aqua Nueva may seem an odd addition to this list after the above rant about value for money, but despite the high-prices being asked the venue more than delivers with some the best, inventive tapas on offer in London. Your food is paired with different Cavas by the glass: start with the always reliable deconstructed Tortilla and delicious seared tuna then progress toward monkfish and finish with duck breasts, Catalan style. These are just examples, of course, the chef will constantly vary the pairings and adapt to your preferences. Diners can order tapas a la carte in the restaurant if they so wish, but it's much more fun to prop up the bar and chat with the lovely staff. Add into the mix a very glam décor and inviting terrace and it's not hard to see why the place is packed at weekends.
Just make sure to ask for the sommelier Mody - he's a fantastically engaging and charming man and if he can't win you over to the joys of Cava, then no-one can!
104 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UB
020 7407 7339
A wonderful addition to London's tapas scene, this venue comes in two parts: sit at the bar in Jose for tapas or experience the refined - but classical - Spanish cuisine at Pizarro further up the road. This restaurant is notable for the fact that it's the only venue I visited where the owner, Jose, was actually present overseeing the cooking for the restaurant's eager clientele. The place was packed mid-week, which tells you all you need to know really. A short, precise menu offering traditional and more inventive Spanish dishes is complimented by lovely staff, great atmosphere and a superb wine list with no concessions to anything outside Spain - as it should be! Try the Gramona Cava, it will change your perceptions of Spanish fizz for ever.
Salvador y Amanda Bloomsbury
1 Vernon Place, London, WC1A 2EP
020 7637 2960
A close contender for the 'best tapas so far I've tried in 2013' award, Salvador y Amanda is privileged to have head chef Ruben Dario Estella, formerly at Salt Yard Charcuterie Bar & Restaurant crafting flawless tapas, with attention given to both the tried and tested and more creative. The only down-side was that the place was dead when I visited, but then it was a damp Tuesday afternoon. Head here at the weekend for a slice of cocina fantastica in the upstairs restaurant, or stay downstairs for something more tranquilo.
Camino King's Cross
3 Vanishers Yard, The Regents Quarter, London, N1 9FD
020 7841 7331
Just two minutes walk from King's Cross Station, in Vanishers Yard, is this very popular tapas bar, owned by Richard Bigg who also plans to open a Cava specific bar this year in London. In the evening the place is packed with ravenous diners looking to enjoy traditional tapas in a buzzy setting. Staff are efficient and always busy, so don't mistake their directness for brusqueness, they just want to make sure you don't get left out in the sea of tables at this sizeable restaurant. The wine list has some attractive options at under £25 to pair with your Chorizo and Jamon.
18-20 Southwark Street London SE1 1TJ
020 7357 8880
Another great example of totally authentic tapas in the capital, Brindisa is a perfect slice of Madrid in Soho, South Kensington, London Bridge and Shoreditch. All the essential ingredients are there: packed at weekends and weekdays, noisy, fun, great tapas and many Spanish wines by the glass. The food is uniformly excellent and the staff very friendly, helpful and obliging - what more do you need from a tapas bar?