Sick of the cold? The Royal Court’s Café Bar provides the ideal space to while away a chilly evening, finds Caroline Bishop.
Royal Court Café Bar
A landmark of London’s theatre scene, the Royal Court has been championing new work by exciting, mould-breaking writers since John Osborne looked back in anger in 1956. Occupying a late 19th century building at the foot of the King’s Road, a mere step or two from Sloane Square tube station, the Royal Court stands apart from the commercial West End but frequently courts its favour. Under current Artistic Director Dominic Cooke two main house productions – Enron and Jerusalem – became the darlings of the West End this year and another – Clybourne Park – will transfer in January.
Helping to ensure that this subsidised theatre remains in rude health is the Royal Court’s Café Bar, an atmospheric basement space which heaves with theatregoers enjoying a pre-show meal, but remains strangely off the radar of those outside the Court’s usual clientele. Venture in, however, and you may just be back; much like the Café Bar’s manager, Sami Rifaat, who started working there as a barman and “fell in love with the place”. It’s not hard to see why.
What’s the deal?
It is strange to walk into a restaurant at 18:00 and feel like you’ve turned up late. With a show at 19:30, service is in full swing by early evening, catering for up to 70 covers booked by those wanting to partake fully of the restaurant’s menu before curtain-up. Candle-lit tables and low lighting give this large, windowless space a cosy, intimate feel, but the vibe varies slightly depending on which section you’re in: towards the bar at the front is more buzzy, the middle is ideal for people-watching, while a section to the rear offers a quieter experience – best for celebrities and hot dates, perhaps. But regardless of where you sit – and who you are – Rifaat and his team aim to offer a seamless experience. “We like to think that we consider every single customer that comes into our restaurant and bar. We treat everyone equally, whether it is Keira Knightley or a tourist off the street.”
Unlike some theatre restaurants, the Royal Court Café Bar’s service is pre-theatre only; the food menu runs from midday to 20:00, after which time it’s just drinks and bar snacks. Consequently, there’s no pre-theatre menu, because everything is pre-theatre. Take your pick from starters/light bites, sandwiches and a menu of main dishes at a reasonably priced £8.95 to £13.50. If you don’t have a show ticket, puddings and Neal’s Yard Cheese (£3.50-£8.95) can be savoured slowly as the Café Bar empties its patrons into the auditorium.
A salad may not be your first choice for a cold winter’s day, but chef Charlie Brookman has achieved the surprising feat of making a salad seem welcomingly wintry. His celeriac, apple, watercress and blue cheese salad offers a fresh, delectable combination of flavours; filling yet light, it is ideal as a substantial starter or light meal. A terrine starter is equally tasty, with hints of spices and festive alcohol – madeira and brandy to be precise – awakening the taste buds. As for mains, a simple yet well presented chopped steak burger with a mustard mayonnaise and hand cut chips is a staple on the menu, while more daring types could opt for the pheasant, mushroom and chestnut soup, a rich, sweet dish which, I decided, doesn’t quite know what it is. Chunkier than most soups, but too liquidy for a stew, the dish’s accompanying slice of toasted sourdough bread didn’t quite stop me feeling that it should have come with mash or rice. Nevertheless, whatever you call it, there wasn’t any of it left in the bowl at the end.
With or without theatre?
With food service ending at 20:00, it’s most likely that your visit to the Café Bar will be related to your purchase of a ticket. Certainly, the change in pace when the show goes up confirms that’s the case. “But also we are now starting to generate business from the general public as well, who have been here before and are coming back,” says Rifaat. For now, post-curtain-up visitors will be drinkers only, though if the reputation of the place continues to grow, Rifaat tells me, they may consider extending the food service hours. With the winter months stretching ahead, the cosy Café Bar is well-placed to build that reputation. As a basement space, summer is hard to sell, but cold winter nights should be enough motivation to draw us into a warm, cosy space that serves food and alcohol.
To lure us further, the Café Bar is planning more one-off events along the lines of Autumn Soul, a night of live music, art installations and DJ sets that played in the Café Bar in October. “The night was the first of its kind in that we sought to capture the interest of non-theatregoers as well,” says Rifaat. “It turned out to be a fantastic success and we are already looking into doing another event early next year.”
Can I have a drink with that?
A great coup for the Café Bar at the moment is a sponsorship deal with French wines, meaning the restaurant serves Gallic tipples exclusively, recommending certain bottles for each main dish on its menu. A Pinot Noir de l’Hospitalet 2008 was smooth and moreish, complementing the food without dominating. “You also find that French wine is lighter by percentage so it’s more suitable for a theatre,” says Rifaat. “Some of the new world wines are very, very strong wines. You find yourself falling asleep in the theatre.” So if someone drops off at the Royal Court, you know the wine’s not to blame.
Rumbling stomach? Visit the Royal Court website now.