One of numerous eateries in trendy Islington, the small but perfectly formed Almeida Café & Bar nevertheless occupies its own niche, finds Caroline Bishop.
The Almeida Café & Bar
Almeida Street, N1 1TA
Currently playing: House Of Games to 6 November
It may be a tube journey away from the West End, but the Almeida theatre is a big hitter in London’s Theatreland. Under Artistic Director Michael Attenborough the venue has produced a succession of West End transfers, premiered work by major playwrights and attracted big name stars to its productions: Andrew Lincoln, David Morrissey, Stockard Channing and Toby Jones are among those who have trodden the boards in recent years, while Gemma Arterton and Stephen Dillane arrive shortly for The Master Builder. And if Ms A is feeling peckish, all she has to do is pop out into the foyer and sample the simple yet tasty offerings of the Almeida Café & Bar. Not to be confused with the Almeida restaurant over the road, this bijou in-theatre bar would be the ideal spot for the Tamara Drewe star to have a solo lunch, a catch-up drink with friends or a pre-theatre meal before taking in the show; if she wasn’t in it, that is.
What’s the deal?
Don’t come to the Almeida Café & Bar expecting three-course fine dining. With a tiny kitchen and a maximum of 15 covers during a mid-week lunchtime, this is not the beginning of a restaurant empire, and nor is it trying to be. What it does do, however, it does well. With five main dishes, made-to-order sandwiches and a selection of sharing plates, the Almeida Café & Bar has given itself a streamlined menu that is manageable and effective: an approach worthy of Gordon Ramsay himself. The emphasis, says Bar Manager Hannah Woolhouse, is on flexibility. “This space has so many uses,” she says, “whether it’s being a bar, a café, a meeting place for people from the theatre, hosting a gala night… It’s got to be able to do everything in one go, so we try to keep it as flexible as possible.”
The one advantage of having a small kitchen, says Woolhouse, is that all the food is ultra-fresh: storage is limited, so it’s bought in and served out the very same day. When my salmon fishcakes arrive, they are so steaming hot it’s obvious they’ve come straight from the cooker just a few metres away. Creamed spinach – wilted just enough to retain a bite – provides a tasty bed for the two fishcakes, whose crunchy golden coating gives way to a seaworthy filling that is thankfully light enough to make the generous portion size manageable.
Other main dishes include pork belly with red wine and rosemary on colcannon mash (that’s potato and kale to you and me) and goats’ cheese, sweet potato and rocket salad, delivered in an impressively balanced stack on the plate. Mains come at a distinctly tasty price too, ranging from £6.70 to £7.70.
Can I stick to the bar?
Without the resources to create vast themed menus, the Almeida nevertheless nods to its theatrical setting with a changing bar menu that reflects the show currently playing beyond the foyer. The Ruth Wilson-starring Through A Glass Darkly generated a Bergman-inspired Swedish smorgasboard, while David Mamet’s House Of Games proffers New York-style tapas (starting at £4.50). Sweet potato wedges with chilli ketchup are teamed with tortilla chips and guacamole, mini fishcakes and deliciously sticky and rich chorizo pan-fried in red wine. They may not be ample substitute for a full meal, but would certainly keep hungry theatregoers from rumbling their way through Mamet’s tense poker scenes.
With theatre or without?
There’s no matinee on the mid-week day I visit for lunch, and yet more than half the tables are occupied, making this a popular spot for a laid-back midday meal, regardless of your theatrical preferences. With windows down one side and a long bar down the other, the Café & Bar is a light and airy affair, with monochrome décor, café-style seating and soulful music creating a relaxed atmosphere that is conducive to whiling away an afternoon with a coffee and a book.
By early evening, those in the know turn up for their pre-theatre pork belly. Table service and hot food only run until 19:00, after which time just the bar menu is available, so “they know to get here about 18:00 and then they can come and have a full meal and sit down,” says Woolhouse. “In the evenings pretty much all our custom is theatregoers.” Diners will therefore be happily satiated by the time the Almeida’s substantial foyer starts to fill up with patrons arriving for a 19:30 performance. With food service over, the bar transforms into a buzzy, drink-focused space catering for the needs of those who would rather have a gin and tonic than a goats’ cheese salad. But both type of customer are, of course, important to the Almeida Café & Bar. “We don’t want to be too highly priced, we don’t want to be too exclusive because we want to make sure that everyone who comes here, as a non-theatre patron or a theatre patron, feels welcome,” adds Woolhouse. And you can’t say fairer than that.
What else is good?
Wholly owned and operated by the Almeida theatre itself, you can be sure that any profit earned by your ingestion of fishcakes and white wine goes straight back into the theatre. And with the forthcoming funding cuts to the arts, you can feel happy that your stomach is doing its bit to support this much acclaimed subsidised neighbourhood theatre. I think I’ll have another glass…
Famished? Visit the Almeida website now.