This article was originally published in Business Life.
Pre-theatre business, the potential for a restaurant to be busy most nights a week from 6pm to 7.20pm, is something that brings a smile to the face of any restaurateur lucky enough to be close enough to a busy theatre or cinema complex.
This is not just because of the extra revenue this early evening business can bring, although this can be significant wherever the restaurant is located.
Two more subtle influences are also at play. The first is that this early evening boost of adrenalin is a great incentive to get the staff motivated. And the most switched-on restaurateurs will have trained their staff to know at what time the various curtains go up - and also what time they come down for any possible post-theatre supper business.
The second is that as nobody likes walking into a quiet, empty restaurant, this early evening buzz fills an otherwise empty room. There may be customers who decide to just stay on and talk rather than see the film while there will invariably be waiters re-setting the recently vacated tables. This activity is comforting on many fronts.
Recently, there have been three, very different, new openings close to one another in London's West End, each of which offers anyone planning to eat before the show a really good time.
The most distinctive in terms of cooking and transformation, in that it used to be a casino, is Bocca di Lupo just off Shaftesbury Avenue, the collaboration of chef Jacob Kenedy and his partner Victor Hugo.
Kenedy used to cook at Moro, the heavily Spanish-influenced restaurant in Exmouth Market, but he has now turned his obvious culinary skills to replicating all that he has eaten on his travels around Italy. But he presents his dishes most sensitively and sensibly, not only by listing them under the cooking style he has used but also by offering most of them in half- or full-size portions.
At lunch and dinner Kenedy delivers salad and fried dishes, pastas and risotto, soups, stews and main courses in this novel approach, but pre-theatre he thoughtfully also offers a range of one-bowl dishes. At the counter across from the open kitchen, this menu includes spaghetti with clams; polenta with sausage and pork ribs; and sea bream with lemon and olive oil. Filling enough for any play, however long.
Terroirs, close to Covent Garden, the English National Opera and the theatres along the Strand and Charing Cross Road, takes an equally enthusiastic but entirely French approach.
Owned in part by wine importer Les Caves de Pyrène, Terroirs seeks to emulate those wine bars in Paris where the aim is to please the customer with a wine list that is as exciting and stimulating as the menu.
This objective they achieve not only by the quality of the cooking that emanates from another open kitchen but also thanks to the ultra-friendly layout of the menu that doubles as a rectangular paper placemat. There is a section devoted to plates of charcuterie and cheese; a slightly more elaborate middle section that includes a salad of beetroot, watercress and pecorino and smoked Lincolnshire eel with celeriac remoulade; and finally in the bottom right-hand corner a section of more substantial main courses that changes daily. On the numerous times I have eaten there, I have enjoyed a dish of black pudding with eggs and wild mushrooms; Suffolk pork belly with heirloom vegetables; and red mullet with scallops and artichokes. (See here for Jancis's review of Terroirs.)
Finally, there is the new Oyster Bar at J Sheekey, a restaurant long frequented by theatre-goers because of its location between the theatres located on St Martin's Lane and Charing Cross Road, and also because of its food, predominantly fish, and highly professional service.
Now the restaurant has been extended into the former shop next door to reveal a sumptuous counter that serves with commensurate style plates of oysters, their renowned fish pie and salmon fishcakes and, for those with an excellent appetite, spotted dick with golden syrup.
Bocca di Lupo, www.boccadilupo.com
J Sheekey, www.j-sheekey.co.uk