Shaftesbury Avenue has been at the centre of London’s Theatreland for over a century. The gilded architectural flourishes, the bespoke pavements the enticing billboards have long been the iconic façade of London’s entertainment industry, whilst up dark side alleys, past stage doors and strip joints, Soho has enjoyed a totally different relationship with London’s visitors. In recent years however Soho has become the pre-theatre kitchen for audiences ‘brave’ enough to look behind the safety curtain.
Walk up Dean Street and Wardour Street or Rupert Street and you will leave behind the chains of unexciting restaurants, that gave London’s its poor reputation towards the end of the 20th Century, to find a plethora of exciting restaurants that will start your evening off in a relaxed way whilst entertaining your taste buds.
Don’t walk too far, though: it is not that Soho is a troublesome area but you will only complicate matters regarding choice and give yourself further to walk back on a full stomach.
In Dean Street don’t go any further than the trio of restaurants between 39 and 41 Dean Street which includes the aptly named 40 Dean Street (above which I used to work in the ’80s). If you are desperate to impress then you could carry on up to Quo Vardis, but a pre-theatre dinner is different to a meal out. For me the “funny little place” wins every time over the “posh nosh” places that demand a whole evening’s attention!
Prix Fixe, Forty Dean Street and Duck Soup represent all you will ever really need for a pre-theatre meal: French, Italian and gastro shabby chic! Forty is the better of the three, Prix Fixe a typical, comforting French braseries and Duck Soup the most trendy! They can all get busy but arrive before 6pm – which is what you should do anyway – and everything will be fine. You are within 4 minutes walk from the Gielgud, Queens, Lyric and Apollo Theatres on the Shaftesbury and the Prince Edward and Palace Theatres in Soho!
If you do want a slightly more classic restaurant then Kettners is also worth a mention at the same end of Soho in Rupert Street. Closest to the Palace Theatre and the Prince Edward Theatre, it is still only 4 minutes from the Queen’s and the Gielgud. One of the oldest restaurants in Soho, it regularly gets good reviews. Its homage to its 1930s heydays and the close-set tables, gives the place a buzz too. Expect dishes like Roast Saddle of Lamb, Savoy Cabbage Mash, Heritage Carrots or Haddock Fillet, New Potatoes, Courgette & Tomato Sauce or Ravioli of Wild Mushrooms & Pumpkin with Cream Pesto Sauce on the pre-theatre menu.
At the Piccadilly Circus end of Shaftesbury Avenue, patrons of the Piccadilly Theatre are often luckier in the nearby restaurants than they are at the theatre afterwards, but that is just my opinion. Meat lovers should head to MASH – the Modern American Steak House – where excellently done steak strips and cheesecake are the standard fayre in stylish subterranean surroundings. For those who prefer a more varied diet, Australian chef and restaurateur Bill Granger has recently opened Bill’s in Soho. With a cook book and a lot of own label food to buy from their shop, Granger’s approach to restaurants makes for a great pre-theatre experience. Expect Bill’s Fish Pie, Bill’s Caesar Salad and Bill’s Ice Cream alongside more generic pearl barley risotto with smoked mozzarella and tomato and Naked Burgers.
If you just fancy a bog standard Spaghetti Bolognese or something else perfectly Italian washed down by a carafe of the house red, then go to Il Cucciolo, three doors down from the theatre: they know what you need! A great culinary overture: quick, quality and gets a round of applause at the end!
But up against such stiff competition, Brasserie Zédel, opposite the Piccadilly Theatre, wins my vote. A stylish Parisian brasserie and the price is great too! I had the The boeuf bourguignon after reading about it in a Jay Rayner review – excellent. But most importantly, for a pre-theatre venue, the service is efficient. Consider returning after the show for desert!
In Brewer Street and, as such, close to all the Shaftesbury Avenue theatres, is the wonderful Randall & Aubin. This excellent seafood restaurant with a bar and open kitchen along one side, wicker chairs and bar stools around marble-topped bars and tables is one of London’s landmark restaurants.
Daily Specials vie with the sumptuous Bouillabaisse that wins the day for me every time I visit.
Lastly a mention has to go for Spuntino. If you are not a fan of fish, which to my mind is the only reason not to go to Randall and Aubin, head up Rupert Street between the Apollo Theatre and the Gielgud Theatre to find this trendy bar offering American tapas – another “experience” set behind a rather understated exterior. It is very small and gets very busy. They don’t take bookings but arrive at a sensible time (ie before 6pm) and you can have a relaxed meal, tucking into a range of minibites: from ribbon steak radiccio and anchovy (£8.50) to wild nettle and smoked ricotta pizzetta (£8) and a foursome of excellent sliders: pulled pork and pickled apple, ground beef & bone marrow, lamb and pickled cucumber and Prawn Po’ Boy, for £18.
There are of course many more restaurants in Soho that will feed you before your show, but wherever you go, get there as early as possible, don’t go for a really expensive place because you won’t have time to enjoy it and don’t go too far from the theatre as you don’t want to walk too far on a full stomach…. and remember: you can always go back for pudding!
Simon Harding is Editor at Theatre Breaks.