Standing in a queue outside Barrafina, my wife and I hear the couple behind us quip they are amazed to be 20th in line.
“Oh, if you get here later than 4:30 there's no point” says the woman. I note that it's 4:39pm and we're awaiting a 5pm opening. Through the window I see the kitchen and wait staff drinking espressos and embracing. That those inside feel the need for a group hug before service should alert me to the type of meal I'm about to have but my radar's off.
It's January in London, and the neon drizzle of a Saturday night in Soho has done its best to soak me. I'm cold and forgot to bring an umbrella - a rookie error.
Still, looking in at the warm interior of deep red leather stools, polished steel and soft white walls I'm able to take my mind off the weather and look forward to some succour.
Barrafina is now an established name in the London culinary scene and has become the dominant player in Spanish tapas. Starting with the Soho venue, founders Sam and Eddie Hart have quickly expanded to two additional venues, both in nearby Covent Garden.
As the doors open (at 5pm exactly, bravo) the crowd ahead and behind piles in. Coats are removed and the stools quickly fill up. For every couple that takes a seat another party lines up along a narrow ledge inside, perching and drinking until the first of the seated diners leave. Wait staff quickly and efficiently take drink orders, flinging requests to each other in Spanish. I start with an aperitif of Fino Perdido, a dry and nutty sherry.
And then... Bang! The atmosphere turns electric, frenetic and loud. As people start to order the business side of the bar winds up several gears to ludicrous speed. Many of the dishes are cooked right in front of us, the smell of smoky and sizzling chorizo fills the air. Chefs and wait staff weave and dodge in a chaotic whirl that somehow works.
Now I know why they needed a team huddle, they've turned serving tapas into an Olympic sport. Even before we start to receive the small and well presented plates on order, we are entertained.
The Jamon de Bellota 5 Jotas is an acorn-fed, free range ham and a good example of Ibérico at its best, enough for two people to enjoy. A Spanish tortilla of prawn and piquillo pepper could use more prawn if it's to be called out as the focal point of the dish, however the texture of the tortilla is on point and the combination of the peppers and caramelised onion makes it sweet and earthy. The prawn adds a complimentary twist to the sweetness.
The highlight is a special of whole anchovies complemented by a paprika aioli. The anchovies are flash fried with just a light dusting of crumbs and it's this lack of additions to the dish that make it so enjoyable. The anchovies are allowed to dominate the palate across taste and texture and with a glass of Tremendus 2013 Honorio Rubio rosado they're halfway between shared plate and moreish bar snack.
Similarly rustic is the octopus with capers. Served on a scarred wooden slab, the salty and acidic hit of the capers go well with the tenderly grilled octopus. The liberal inclusion of (yet more) paprika adds smokiness.
Yes it's loud, however my wife and I still find it easy to sit in conversation. The noise prevents the diners next to us hearing every word, which is nice given how close everyone's packed in. Yes it's chaotic, but the service is solid and every member of staff knows their part.
Barrafina has earned its reputation for quality however I'll return not just for the food, but because it's fun.
Barrafina - 54 Frith St, London W1D 4SL, United Kingdom