Merchants Tavern Bar, Shoreditch
Angela Hartnett is a big deal on the London restaurant scene. A former protégé of old Ramsay, she went on to open Michelin-starred Murano in Mayfair, the Lime Wood restaurant in Hampshire and more recently Shoreditch’s Merchants Tavern Bar. But there’s a back story here. It’s a joint venture coupled with romance, as Hartnett is working alongside talented chef and boyfriend Neil Borthwick – I’d like to believe this is the reason Merchants makes for such fine dating.
Arriving for a meal in the bar early on a Thursday night, the room pleasantly hums. The front area is a perfect mix of post-work couples chowing down on sourdough bruschetta and red wine, and jovial co-workers perching on high stools and staying for perhaps just one more bite. The room feels lofty, with enough space between booths to lean back, slow down and take it all in. Unlike other expansive restaurants with culinary credential, nothing about the room screams LIKE ME. I barely remember the interiors, just a wash of muted greens and reds, some wood, some airiness and a damn good meal.
Bar food is light and perfect for dates. Take the waiter’s recommendations. The sour dough bread with cherry tomatoes is stupidly good. You’ll be tempted to try and discuss with your date what it is that makes the tomatoes so juicy, so sweet, so squidgy and yet…. But don’t, it’s bad chat. Instead, order wine by the glass, some plump green olives, a side salad (for form’s sake), roasted peppers and mozzarella (make that two orders) and a warming bowl of giant couscous with generously strewn lamb bits. Christ, I want more.
First dates should be conducted at the bar. I’m inclined to recommend not overdoing the booze as this makes for a relaxed Wednesday/Thursday date. You know, the kind you have with that person you’ve been slow burning with. You’re not sure whether it’s too ballsy to ask them out on a weekend so you go for the safe mid-weeker. It’s ostensibly post work drinks turning ‘organically’ into dinner. With cajoling banter from the waiter, perhaps a helpful ‘come on have a real drink’, you’re ushered into a comfortable rhythm of ordering, chatting, picking at plates and falling for each other just a bit. Staying from 7pm to 9pm would be the ideal timing on this – leave them wanting more.
But push it past the first glass of wine and you might as well hang up decency and see how far you can get.
I just couldn’t.
4. If it’s not on the first visit, it’ll be after the next. But this ain’t shagging, it’s the sort of extended love-making session that wouldn’t feel out of place in Vicky Christian Barcelona. In other words, INTENSE.