La Bodega Negra is a Soho, London reinvention of SoHo New York's La Esquina (another notorious Mexican restaurant, accessed via a secret door and clipboard patrol). From the outside the main restaurant looks like a sex shop, albeit an unnervingly pristine one. Its neon is more Tim Noble and Sue Webster than the Old Compton Street of pornier days now past. Once you’ve made it inside, past two check-in desks, and a lady in a polka dot shorts-suit with feathered trilby, you’re in what might be the prettiest, buzziest basement in London.
It’s very dark, very sexy and very 2012. The décor is all vintage-looking estancia tiling, rough plaster, reclaimed shopfront letters, upturned pianos, taxidermy and curtained-off alcoves. Despite a few buttoned-down banker types and a single baseball cap sighting (with blazer and shirt too, people...), everyone looks like they “might be someone”. The bar staff have Alex James/Nuno Mendes flicks and the punters are rake-thin blondes throwing their heads back to pour another grapefruit margarita in. The music – a fastidiously hip mix of Carly Simon, Ice Cube and Depeche Mode covers by Johnny Cash - gets louder and louder and, “what’s that you say!?”, louder. As much as you might want to hate it, it’s quite fabulous. Owner Serge Becker certainly knows his stuff. It’s such a great party, the food is perhaps a moot point.
After working our way through the menu, we’d say that this isn’t really somewhere you want to come for a full-on dinner, it’s somewhere to book and rock up to as late as possible, for a casual mix of nibbles, liquor and nightlife, particularly as it has a heavily policed two-hour table turning policy.
Although, first, a word on the prices: A small plate of red snapper ceviche at £13.50 and a seabass in alternate green and red seasoning for £26 is spendy. With a few tacos, salads and bits and bobs, you’ll blow £50, or much more, with ease. This is London-small-plate-hazard-red-alert territory. But then, some of it is very good. From the starter list, BBQ octopus is dark, tender and tasty, and a seared tuna starter near perfect. Grilled corn with cream would be better off the cob and with less herb on it. The steak tacos (£6.50 for two) were much-moreish but the chorizo version was so spiced that we needed an emergency glass of milk. A single tuna tostadita was light, tasty and creamy, but a side of white beans with chorizo was anaemic and lacked seasoning. A plate of roasted vegetables looked dark, leaden and unappealing, with aggressive chunks of onion. It didn’t taste much better. The main problem at La Bodega Negra is that everything tastes curiously similar, and everyone at the table hankered for at least one thing a little lighter.
Come to La Bodega Negra for lashings of margarita-based cocktails and trays of tacos to soak them up, or have some ceviche and a main (the chicken paillard or slow roasted lamb for two are stand-outs). It’s such a shame about the two-hour turnaround, because this would be a great place to linger, revelling in the candlelit funk and glitz, running up a ridiculous bill on drinks and finger food. It’s such a fun room. But then, hey, at least you can book – and let’s face it, most London restaurateurs choose to insult you one of two ways these days: make you wait in the rain for a table or ask for your chip and PIN while you're halfway through your pudding. And if the main restaurant at La Bodega Negra was “no reservations” there’d be a very weird, very long unlikely-looking queue outside of Soho’s most salubrious sex shop.
The ELLEuk Score
Style of food: Mexican
Good for: Quick bite after work; special occasion; pre-theatre; first date; romantic
For reservations call 0207 758 4100 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prices and Other Details at La Bodega Negra
Address: 9 Old Compton Street, W1D 5JF
Opening times: 6pm-1am Mon-Sat; 6pm-11.30pm
Average price per person for two-course meal without wine: £45
Price of bottle of house wine: White - £20, Red - £23
Price of glass of house wine: White - £5.30, Red - £5
Price of bottle of house champagne: £38
Price of glass of house champagne: £8
Private dining? Yes. There’s the Barrel room (which seats 35 people) and the Puppet room (which seats 25 people)
Garden/al fresco dining? No
Best table? Tucked away corner tables are best – away from foot traffic.
Who goes? Kylie Minogue, Chloe Sevigny and wealthy scenesters.
Nearest tube: Leicester Square
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