Il Calcio, Mayfair

5 years ago

The Vibe

There was once a very posh Italian joint in New York that stole my heart. I was taken by friends who speed-lunched in Nobo and caught pre-clubbing bites at Pétrus so I knew the place would be special.  It was called Nello’s – a chic and traditional Italian restaurant in a glitzy part of town with the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had. Cross the Atlantic to Il Calcio and the team behind Nello’s has given us one more reason to date and to date well, with a little old school finesse. Like Nello’s, it’s in a fancy area (Mayfair) and lives up to traditional Italian dining norms with an exceptionally long menu, white tablecloths, red wine bottles to decorate as well as drink and an excellent lighting scheme.

Food is brought to your table for you to marvel at before it is portioned out with much the same pomp as you’d get with a hefty drinks order in a London club (sparklers and scantily hostesses were sorely missed). It may have only opened in November but it looks like a family institution warm and cosy, full of diners speaking in hushed tones and leaning over tables to hold hands, excellent wine in giant glasses, simple and well executed food, and groups of affluent older gentlemen hosting dinners for good friends. Add to this food that invites those all too rare comfortable silences (pure appreciation) and you have a pretty special set up for someone you maybe/sort of/definitely love just a little bit.

The Order

It’s an intimidating list and whilst it is likely that most things are good, do that smooth old move of asking the waiter to order for you. Give them vague instructions (a pasta to start, then a white fish, a red meat, and a vegetable) but acquiesce to whatever they suggest. Saying that, if they don’t even mention the mushroom and truffle spaghetti then an intervention is definitely required. It comes served in a gigantic hollowed out parmesan block, the hot pasta mingling with the melting cheese as it is being served- best bloody thing ever. Booze-wise, no need to go overboard. Match your wines with the food, so start with white and move on to red. It may be a laid back environment but it’s a classy joint too and, partly because of the hushed tones, you’ll need to avoid being a loud drunk.

The Game

Take someone who loves Italian food and is excited (not scared) of a pasta and meat dominated meal where the only vegetable on the table has been drowned in butter and olive oil.  It’s for someone you love drinking red wine with, enjoy long and deep conversations with and who, whether on a first or fifth date, you suspected for some time you would like to have a relationship with. Meet at Bond Street tube station on a Friday and head straight to the restaurant. Gentlemen, offer the banquette seat to your date and kick off the conversation asking about their week. Comfortable, as opposed to controversial, talk is permitted in this environment – it seems like the sort of place a glamorous married couple might choose to catch up on a week that involved travelling a lot for work. Conversation might turn to other good meals enjoyed around the world, places your family return to each year, that sort of nonsense. Then, towards the end of the meal, grab for a hand across the table, drop some traditional lines (I’m so glad you could make it tonight) and express a desire to kiss them. Get your coats and when saying goodbye to the host, casually enquire about another table for two in a fortnight. Smooth.

The Faults

The outside façade doesn’t quite betray the good vibes within.

Sex Factor

4. This may be traditional grown-up dating but it’s quite hard to say goodbye to your date at the end.

 

Got a London date suggestion to share? Leave your comments below.

The Folly, Bank

5 years ago

The Vibe

The rise in popularity of dating apps like Grindr, Lovestruck and Dattch hints at a new dating mood that has become as much about convenience as it is about romance. If you don’t manage to schedule a primetime Friday night date (4 weeks in advance), you may need to fit one in after work. For city slickers, The Folly is as close as you can get to a good-looking and casual restaurant near work, without having to capitulate to the cringe of All Bar One or the superfluity of Barbecoa. Enter the giant room to be confronted with a lot of seated groups and couples, great lighting, a buzz (or tremor) generated by people flanking wooden communal tables and a good spread of foliage that saves the place from being a sterile city den.

They call themselves ‘the City’s secret garden’ and the place, despite its size and location, is actually very pretty indeed, casual and full enough to put you instantly at ease, but with some clever lighting, candles and green touches to fuel a pastoral romance (of sorts). There are also hostesses to greet and take you to your table, adding a bit of swagger to proceedings.

The Order

It’s midweek and you are popping in for a one-course meal, a bottle of wine and some sparks (albeit within a sensible time period if you please). Order the vino to the table the moment you sit down and, since you’ll be skipping starters, get some nibbles to keep you going (olives and one of their goats cheese-topped flatbreads will do). What The Folly does well is basic ‘corporate casual’ fare- think chunky club sandwiches, steak with sauces, EXCELLENT chips and very decent burgers (with meat from Allens of Mayfair and buns from Borough market). Finish the bottle and, if it’s going well, say yes to the offer of ‘just another couple of glasses?’.

The Game

This is the place to take a co-worker who you are embarking on a new and somewhat illicit affair with. Or another cityboy/girl you exchanged numbers with at The Corney & Barrow or Paternoster and were in two minds about whether to follow up. Agree on a post-work dinner on a Wednesday or Thursday, suggesting to meet at your local beforehand to kick-start the night. Whatever you do, don’t change out of your workwear; the whole point is to be mock-casual about everything on this date. Then stride to The Folly, and order very quickly. This date is a very easy one to prolong or cut short depending on how it’s flowing. If it’s going well, keep on ordering wine and wait till one of you has a guilty conscience and suggests you head home (separately) after a very long snog session propped up against the outer walls of the restaurant/your office. But if it’s going badly, order by the glass and call time on the evening once you’ve disposed of at least half your plate (‘oh the portions are massive, i’m stuffed. Bill?’). Then split the damage and run.

The Faults

Very much a post-work joint and no gourmand credentials.

Sex Factor

0/5. Early on in the week it’s easy to make work excuses and leave. That said, if you generously gave your date a Thursday night, you actually get on, and you hit the two bottle mark, it is most definitely on. One of you is likely to live on the central line so it will be a funny/lary train ride back. Set your phone alarm for the obligatory email to work tomorrow.

Parlour, Kensal Green

5 years ago

The Vibe

Reinvention is a wonderful thing, especially in the hospitality industry. We’re all suckers for a re-launch, a re-brand or a pop-up residency, but in the case of Parlour (formerly The Regent) we see an established neighbourhood pub that wanted to rid itself of its pub-club reputation and get all foodie on us. To great effect. Walk into Parlour’s new dining room and you’re greeted by polished wood and blue panelled walls, leather banquette seating lining the periphery, trendy water beakers, industrial-chic chairs, exposed lightbulbs and some clever tiling. It has hints of the Riding House Café about it, albeit played down so as not traumatise the local drinkers who woke up one evening to find themselves in a zeitgeist polished up all-day-dining establishment (8am-1am). Like its owners, who remain the same, The Regent just grew up a little, and got a new wardrobe.

The Order

This is hearty all right. There are some dishes that are staple pub fare, and some that are done exceptionally. The chicken liver paté, which comes in a jar accompanied by a stack of crostini, is smooth, rich and the best I’ve had. Accompany with a lighter starter as it’s a sure fire mistake to also go for the wedges of deep friend brie (or should we?). Steak is fine, crab cakes are excellent and the ‘Cow Pie’ is what they pride themselves on. Go with what the waiters suggest- they seem to know their stuff but also provide the sort of cool and casual banter you’d get in the LES  in New York, i.e American politesse with an edge.

The Game

Kensal Green is slowing growing its offering but is not quite there yet so choices for the evening may be limited. Meet outside the pub and jest with the friendly bouncer till your date arrives. When you book, make sure you request the round corner table facing the entrance- it’s the most romantic option and set away from the larger groups in the room. This is the place for wine rather than cocktails, which can always be enjoyed afterwards at the bar. Make it a lengthy experience, dragging out the courses, taking a while to decide and rushing nothing. The aim is to start by sitting at perpendicular angles to each other and slide together across the banquette as the meal goes on- by dessert there should be some knee tickling. As this is a neighbourhood joint, ideally one of you lives nearby, so perhaps suggest a casual DVD, which will hopefully turn into a makeout session. If you don’t, then cab it to Love & Liquor or Paradise for some dancing and more booze. Tackle the difficulty of getting home much later (and much drunker).

The Faults

Bit heavy for date food and, unless you live nearby, a bit of a mission.

Sex Factor

2. The food isn’t light and the logistics of location and post-dinner options might complicate the ease at which you fall into bed together.  Perfect for cosy winter dating and for those bored with the proliferation of concept restaurants in town.

Trullo, Islington

6 years ago

The Vibe

Low-key, high-class heaven, occupying discreet little premises off Highbury Corner. The restaurant is light with pretty, unfussy décor – an upmarket trattoria with all of the romance and none of the checked table cloths. Trullo is North London’s younger, cheaper heir to West London’s River Café: more urban, less urbane. There’s a basement bar beneath for the more covert rendezvous, serving complex cocktails that mostly contain both a spirit (vodka/gin) and a liqueur (campari/vermouth/limoncello). These can be soaked up by dishes from a pared down version of the menu upstairs.

The Order

Anything on the menu, which changes day to day. For the primi piatti, pappardelle with beef shin ragu was as glorious as the Italians who institutionalised pasta as a starter. Lemon sole with samphire, brown crab and pangrattato (crunchy breadcrumbs) followed. The roast pigeon was accompanied, dauntingly, by a finger bowl signifying that if you wanted to make real headway with the bird, it would be a sticky business. Flecks did fly from my companion’s plate which romantic purists might consider a buzz-kill. New potatoes as a ‘side’ have seldom been so alluring, with rough, thick skins basted in butter and herbs. Tiramisu dissolved on the tongue within seconds but the memory still lingers. The wine list is exclusively Italian with the recent exception of a ‘Diamond Jubilee’ sparkling wine from Kent which the sommelier couldn’t resist stockpiling. Bottles of wine start at £18 and approach £80. Blurbs about origin and characteristics accompany the list, and the waiters are informed and friendly in navigating it.

The Game

Book in advance to mitigate the risk of ending up in one of Upper St’s many banal backwaters epitomised by the Wetherspoon’s-esque Junction next door. On a hot summer’s evening Trullo gets pretty stuffy so avoid silk (if you’re a man perhaps do this anyway or risk Italianate-overload). You can take a turn around Highbury Fields afterwards to walk off the inevitable food coma. Or make a virtue of your companion’s post-prandial sluggishness and whisk them home to lie prone…

The Faults

The jeopardy when you approach the menu of betraying too soon that you’re a monoglot Philistine. You might well lust after the summer berries zabaglione (spiked custard) or the Sbagliato cocktail of campari, quince liqueur, orange bitters and prosecco but can you spit out the words? Amidst an otherwise reasonably priced menu, the side salad of a few dressed leaves, at £4, is clearly where Trullo works its profit margin.

Sex Factor

5. If you’re taken to Trullo, they’re really into you. Or their food. Which is aphrodisiacally delicious.

Village East, Bermondsey

6 years ago

The Vibe

New York’s East Village is a countercultural hub, the residence of the Beat generation, the artist’s spiritual home. Village East takes pains to reference the hip credentials of its transatlantic namesake. Sure it’s in a warehouse. Sure the kitchen is wide open for all to see, there are pillars and concrete in abundance, and minimalist laws prevail. And sure there are areas where you can lounge about with the culture section of The Times whilst waiting for your date to arrive. However, it’s also gratifyingly slick, the food is good and there’s none of the pretentious artistic hubris you might find with the real deal. Bermondsey is fast becoming the most solid date option around.

The Order

This is a brunch date, but one that will cause some anxiety and confusion when the menu is presented. There’s far too much to choose from and it all looks delightful. Do not extend the ‘what to have’ conversation beyond 10 minutes, one of you will tire rather quickly. Just restaurant roulette it up and go for the second dish that grabbed your attention. Then add a side. The squid and chorizo salad has fresh, clean flavours with a great dressing, and it wouldn’t be considered completely gluttonous to order a supplementary breakfast item. Place your order and stop thinking about what you missed out on. Remember, you came for the action, not the food.

The Game

You can take your time with this meal, facilitated by effusively friendly but not very speedy service. Enjoy a starter of coffees and cocktails, swap stories about the night before and keep it relaxed. No heavy discussions here please, anecdotes and funny observations will do. When the food arrives, make it clear that you are open to sharing, alleviating the panic caused by food envy. After the meal, have a few more coffees and suggest a walk towards the river. Amble in the sun, lie in the park round the corner, be content and playful. No lunging here, this is a definitively chilled out one. A lingering kiss on the cheek will create a frisson of sexual energy and leave them wanting more.

The Faults

No guaranteed sex on this date. Also slowish service and the aforementioned plague of choice.

Sex Factor

0. However this is a key ‘ground work’ date. You may not get some today, but you managed to drag out this date a whooping 5 or 6 hours so there’s a tacit understanding that you eventually expect to see a return on this investment.

The Booking Office at St Pancras, Kings Cross

6 years ago

The Vibe

Old school railway stations are synonymous with romance: teary partings, heartfelt welcomes, separations and reconciliations. For every Julia Roberts weeping in Union Station, or Elizabeth Smart pining in Grand Central, there is a soppy fool who can’t help but bring a date here, whether embarking on a minibreak or seeking out achingly styled-up restaurants.

St Pancras Renaissance Hotel is unfailing romantic and its bar, The Booking Office, was made for dating. Both the outside of the building and the inside of the 29-metre-long bar are strikingly grand but the crowd is much the same mish-mash as you’d get in such a central hub- some tourists, some novice daters, some whiskey swilling older men and some girls dressed up to start their night. The diversity of the crowd makes the grandeur of the place that bit less intimidating, putting you gratefully at ease. Ignore the couples tables and perch at the high communal seating in the centre for a more intimate experience (and a greater opportunity to graze a thigh of two).

The Order

It’s all about the cocktails, more specifically the punch. The Charles Dickens memorial punch is hot, citrus, cognac heaven on a cold night, whilst the Champagne Cobbler is a perfect summer treat. Just be warned, they like their drinks real sweet so if you’re a bitters guy/gal, ask for advice. Whilst food is an option, you’d be better off just having some bar snacks (1/2 dozen oysters if you will ) rather than a full on meal; it’s just a pit stop on your evening out.

The Game

Yes it’s pricey but you wouldn’t want to spend the night here. Just use it for what it was intended for, a transitional moment of witty repartee and

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swooning. Have a couple of cocktails and then leave. Stay too long and the romantic gloss starts to fade as loud Americans on your periphery begin to grate. If you’re throwing your bank balance at this date, you will have booked some Eurostar tickets for afterwards. If you’re not, get the nice man on the door to hail you a cab to Exmouth Market for some outdoors drinks on a balmy summer’s eve.

The Faults

It could do with a few more Glamazons up in there to raise the style stakes. Then again, who wants the competition.

Sex Factor

A heartwarming 3. It’s romantic, it’s pretty posh, it’s all drink. The transport links are also fantastic, making the move from bar to bed that much smoother. Plus if you are hopping onto the Eurostar tipsy, the temptation to break some rules may be too much.

Gillray’s Steakhouse, South Bank

6 years ago

The Vibe

A first date this is not, but as long as you’re able to keep your tongue firmly in your cheek and your skinny jeans and lumberjack shirt shut in your wardrobe, you will appreciate the classic, grand dining room and genuinely stunning view of Parliament over the Thames. Gillray’s Steakhouse has strains of a very American sort of formality, well thought out, polished, pedantic and oversized at all times. If you are a sugar daddy from Manhattan in need of a bite to eat with your English rose, this is the place. If not, couples could be in role play heaven here.

The Order

Well executed. Nicely cooked tasty steaks. A locally (nationally) sourced menu

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rightly remains de rigueur for any kitchen worth its salt. We think hotel guests will also find the culinary nationalism quaint. The Devonshire Crab Cakes were delicious, the Cornish Oysters astonishingly sweet and certainly add to the grandiose nature of a hotel dining room. Steaks on dates are hard work (no-one wants to be cracking on to their date while battling a bad case of the meat sweats), but these fellas are worth making an exception for. The only concession to internationalism was the wine list, but judging by a charming medium red from Bookers Vineyard in West Sussex (made with Dornfelder grapes, for those who know about these things) perhaps it won’t be long before the entire menu can sourced from England.

The Game

You’re dating, you’ve been dating for years. Grow up.

The Faults

Serving oysters on ice in huge wire contraptions is straight from the 80s. They don’t need the attention. Wheeling two plates of food around the dining hall on a cart is plain weird.

Sex Factor

2 (5 on occasion). Had we had the cash to compete, we may have just been influenced by the proximity of so many grand bedrooms.

Zucca, Bermondsey

6 years ago

The Vibe

When Zucca launched in 2010 it was seen as a cross between the River Café and St John, albeit minus the waterfront and without the pungent offal. Two years on and Zucca is still a strong force on the Bermondsey food scene, bravely fighting off the modish José  Pizarro’s attempts to make the area his tapas empire.  A modern and minimalist Italian joint, Zucca is the place to take a date if a) you want to look money without actually having to spend that much, b) you want to casually pretend you’ve been coming to Bermondsey since before it became ‘big’ or c) you’re still excited by a free amuse bouche at the start of a meal. If you can manage to get a table (book well in advance), you’ll be welcomed by a waitress whose haircut and makeup combo is as immaculate as the dining room she marshals. Thanks to an open-plan kitchen, a diverse crowd and an affordable (ish) menu, the formality is taken down a notch. The dishes, particularly the fish, are creative, beautifully flavoured, and delicate, with the thankful inclusion of rich pastas to satisfy the very hungry or very hung over.

The Order

The salted cod to start is a treat. For mains, opt for one pasta and one meat or fish to share. Although the menu changes regularly, look out for the roast cod with borlotti beans, clams and ransom. It’s excellent. And if she happens to ask, ransom is “a wild garlic plant with leaves that give a slightly more delicate taste than normal garlic”, translation “less likely to overpower me when I lunge in for a snog”. Skip dessert and perk up with an espresso and some limoncello before you carry on elsewhere.

The Game

Act au fait when your date gets excited about the surprising delights of Bermondsey, you are so at home here already. Keep the conversation cultured, sip on chilled white and name drop the other good foodie spots in the area.  Educate her, without being an utter twat- a very thin line indeed. Then swing by the White Cube gallery and charmingly poke fun at its pretentiousness, making witty little jokes about the art and proving that, despite what everything up to this point may have proved, you really are rather a laugh. Comparatively.  If it’s looking good at this point, suggest a trip to Vinoteca for some wine tasting and angle for a drunken kiss on the romantic cobbles once night falls. Better yet, take her down one of London Bridge’s many tunnels, either very intimate or slightly creepy.

The Faults

If you’re feeling anything less than perky then the bright, white and clean space is far from the dark cocoon you are most comfortable wooing dates in. That said, man up.

Sex Factor

1. A glorious date in a charming locale but you’re going to really have to drag it out if you’re expecting anything more. My advice is to save your money for the second date and just make sure that it’s in a shameless Shoreditch bar.

Brawn, Hackney

6 years ago

The Vibe

Trendy, yes. However, Hackney’s increasing ability to convince the rest of London that it is not only a good-looking spot (questionable) and the new culinary centre of the city (ditto) means that twentysomething customers are hopping on their Borris Bikes for a bit of Columbia/Broadway market followed by some lunch. Bikes aside, if you manage to get your date down on a sunny Sunday to the flower market it can’t fail to induce a butterfly of romance. Ignore what the post feminist by your side says, she bloody loves (nay dreams) of being given flowers and will proudly carry them round for the rest of the day, peacocking to her fellow Sunday dates (‘I know, sweet riiiight?’). After this minor conquest, head to Brawn round the corner to wallow in the atmosphere of East London chic; think brick, basic wooden tables, the odd flower in a makeshift vase and cold cuts served on chopping boards. Sure.

The Order

Brawn is recognised by food bloggers as a staple in East London feasting. On a Sunday, it presents you with a fuss free date, offering a fixed menu which you have no say in. An array of starters will arrive, pâté and breads, prawns, cheeses, nibbly bits, and then a roast to share with all the trimmings. It is all laid out as if eating at a dining table at home which, although annoying to have to carve your own roast chicken on a date, does provide a faux domestic set-up that could be construed as intimate. The food is fun to eat, but not a show stopper. That said, the cool factor elevates the experience and the people watching is, at best, highly amusing and, at worst, a good distraction from the date.

The Game

It’s likely that if you’re a ‘young and fun’ twentysomething you may well bump into someone you know so have your story straight (if you need to). Also remember to introduce your date, don’t underestimate how fury inducing being a silent witness can be. The flowers will have already loosened up your date so the meal itself will be an attempt to retain that romance and just coast along. It’s a laid back affair; talk about the weekend gone, lightly jest about the pretensions of East London, (whilst appreciating its merits), suggest another stroll after lunch, and just make sure it heads in the direction of Shoreditch. Once you hit the less creative but standardly glitzy bars of Hoxton, slip into any of the dark ones and then make your move. Hoxton Bar and Grill is passable, Happiness Forgets even better.

The Faults

There’s a definite ‘scene’ going on here, love or hate it.

Sex Factor

1. It’s a day date but if you push through to Hoxton, it’s on.

Osteria Basilico, Notting Hill

6 years ago

The Vibe

Every gastronome worth their salt likes to boast about the charming little Italian they frequent, obviously the best in London, quite a little find. Osteria Basilico will appear a lot on this list. It is as rustic as you would wish (a lot of wood, a little candlelight), expensive enough to impress, and full of couples who clearly use this as their keep-the-fire-alive local haunt.  Consequently, there’s nothing cringe about being on a date here, most people seem to be. And whilst a cosy Italian is a rather traditional date option, you at least don’t have to endure the wine choosing nightmare you would in a French joint, second cheapest will do thank you very much.

The Order

The pasta dishes are truly sensational here. Topping the list is the spaghetti vongole; al dente, swimming in a chilli-flecked olive oil with fresh cherry tomatoes and clams. Delightful. Warm bread is constantly replenished to dip into the leftover oils and you may well get through a basket before the food arrives. Share a starter,  since the mains will more than fill you up. The burrata mozzarella and parma ham is a great option; fresh, simple and creamy. Dessert, if manageable, should be the tiramisu to share; light but perhaps not alcoholic enough.

The Game

If at all possible try and sit upstairs, as some of the couples tables downstairs  make you feel like you’re speed dating. Have a couple of cocktails at Montgomery beforehand, then dive into the bread basket and order your red wine speedily. Don’t pontificate over the menu, choose a dish you know you like and then refocus on the person you’re with. Corniness is permitted on this date; hold her hand across the table, tell her how ravishing she looks, feed her some burrata. Others will be doing it, it’s more cringing not to. At the end of the meal you’ll be snoozy drunk but content. Have a long kiss goodnight outside, hail two cabs, text to make sure she got back alright and drift off into a deep sleep safe in the knowledge that you were charming.

The Faults

As mentioned, avoid the line of speed dating tables downstairs. Request a four person or corner table, or just stay upstairs.

Sex Factor

1. I wouldn’t recommend you play for the sex card this time, most people won’t feel too erotically charged after a big bowl of pasta.  However, if you’ve already slept together and this is your second or third dinner, keep the consistency and go for it, just don’t expect acrobatics.

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