Much like a mobile phone going off, no one wants a particularly tense dramatic moment to be spoiled by a rumbling stomach. In a new series of features, Caroline Bishop samples the best hunger-satisfying in-theatre restaurants in London. First up, the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Menier Chocolate Factory
53 Southwark Street, SE1 1RU
Currently playing: Caryl Churchill’s A Number to 5 November
Why should I go?
There are, appropriately, a number of reasons to visit the Menier Chocolate Factory. In just six years this London Bridge theatre has become one of the most drooled over off-West End venues in London, attracting big name actors and directors to its small stage and punching above its weight when it comes to award ceremonies. And that’s just the half of it: above the stage on street level, the Menier’s busy restaurant matches the quality of the theatre with an intimate yet busy atmosphere and a regularly changing modern British menu that caters for theatregoers or foodies, or – like me – both.
What’s the deal?
You’re spoiled for choice in terms of matching your food to your wallet. A quick dinner before the show is satisfied by the short but stylish pre-theatre menu (two courses for £14, three courses for £17), which offers a choice of two dishes per course and is, intriguingly, themed around the currently playing show. Though the name conjures an image of a floppy burger in a cardboard bap, the Menier’s Meal Deal is actually an innovative and attractive proposition: one special price (varies according to show) includes two courses from the pre-theatre menu and a theatre ticket. And there’s no need to keep your eye on the clock; according to Restaurant Manager Douglas Hyde the theatre and the restaurant work hand in hand, meaning you’ll never miss the beginning of the show because you’re trying to pay the bill, and dessert can be served in the interval if you so wish. For those with longer to dine and more pennies in their pockets, the a la carte menu is always available and, says Hyde, “shows a bit more diversity, a bit more seasonality, fresher ideas.” Mains range from £9 to £19, with meze-style sharing platters at £12/£13 and puds around £5.50.
What’s on the table?
The pre-theatre menu shows creativity in its themed dishes which take inspiration from the venue’s stage. So when France-set Aspects Of Love played over the summer, the menu demonstrated Gallic flair with salade lyonnaise, chicken supreme and crème brulée. When I visit, the English setting of Caryl Churchill’s A Number brings us, to start, a deliciously tangy salmon and chive mousse, with just-burnt (in a good way) toast triangles, followed by beef and London stout stew and a wild berry and apple crumble with custard to finish. Previous themed dishes have included poker chips (Patrick Marber’s poker play Dealer’s Choice) and a chilli con carne named after Barney’s Chile Hacienda, a setting in the musical Sweet Charity. With the pre-theatre menu changing with each show – Hyde says they have never offered the same dish twice – it begs a visit every time.
In contrast, the a la carte menu makes a point of retaining customer favourites, despite its seasonal variations. Among the Gressingham ducks and lamb shanks you will always find a sausage dish – on my visit a skewered Cumberland curl with cheesy mash and sweet caramelised onion – while the industrial-sized Factory Burgers are Menier staples. As Hyde points out, you have to come with an appetite: a 7oz beef burger, packed with bacon, cheddar and chutney, so juicy it defies any attempt at polite table manners, would easily serve two. The accompanying chips, nicely browned and cut into chunky fingers, are arranged like Jenga pieces on the plate. “We’ve got the third best chips in London,” says Hyde modestly. “I don’t know what the other two are but I don’t want to say that we are top.”
With or without theatre?
Arriving at 19:00, the place is heaving. With Meal Deal customers mostly seated by 18:30, this early evening slot is the Menier’s prime time. In fact, Hyde’s team serves 75 covers pre-theatre nearly every night: booking ahead is essential. But after 20:00, when the majority have trouped into the bowels of the Menier, the vibe in the restaurant changes completely. The lively buzz gives way to a mellow, relaxed atmosphere perfect for lingering over a pudding or bottle of wine. In fact, dining at the Menier without going to the theatre might just be one of the best kept secrets in London.
What else will I find?
Did I mention the teapot collection? Inherited from a museum over the road, these decorative china pots add to the pleasing idiosyncrasies of the place. (Appropriately, the restaurant boasts an impressive selection of teas with which to round off your meal.) Iron pillars and exposed brickwork hark back to the building’s industrial’s past, while show photography on the walls indicates its present: Samuel West and Tamzin Outhwaite may well be watching you eat your raspberry and passionfruit mousse with toasted peanut and hokey pokey crumble (a decadent construction that contrasts cream with crunch, sweetness with nuttiness). Who knows what they’ll do with the new basement bar which will be trialled this Christmas: no doubt another string to the Menier’s quirky bow.
Do they still make chocolate?
Thankfully, it’s a resounding yes. Ok, they may not be churning out Dairy Milk in the back room, but the Chocolate Factory lives up to its name by offering a delectably rich chocolate brownie on its dessert menu. Warm, gooey and – like most Menier dishes – large, it is a signature dish in more ways than one: it comes emblazoned with the venue’s name in cocoa powder. “People come back for that,” says Hyde. Which is why it’s a permanent fixture on the menu; I envisage riots if it was ever withdrawn.
Hungry? Visit the website to book