IT’S A FRIDAY night, and as usual El Pirata in Mayfair is buzzing. Tucked away in quiet Down Street, between Piccadilly and Shepherd Market, this popular Spanish restaurant celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
At a time when restaurants in Britain are closing at the rate of ten a week, staying in business for a quarter of a century is quite an achievement. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
In fact, running a restaurant is pretty tough for anybody these days. Brexit uncertainty has weakened the pound, forcing up food prices; staff costs have risen; good chefs and front of house staff are in short supply anyway; business rates are punitive; and the number of customers booking and then not turning up is between 10 and 15 per cent - although it’s higher for start ups, with one restaurant recording 50 per cent no-shows on its first night. That must have been heartbreaking.
Little wonder, then, that the tide seems to have turned and the number of restaurants in Britain is falling for the first time in more than a decade.
At one point last year, you might have written this off as a crisis in ‘managed’ casual dining, following news of closures at Jamie’s Italian, Carluccio’s and Byron, among others. But actually it’s a crisis for the whole industry - so it was rewarding to find one of my old Mayfair haunts full of chattering diners.
We were lucky too: we hadn’t booked, and there were four of us, but it was still very early and we were shown to a table downstairs.
Asked what makes a successful restaurant, most people will say ‘good food, good service and a nice atmosphere’. In this difficult market, it takes creativity, intelligence and real effort to deliver on the first two qualities. The third is often elusive - some restaurateurs have a gift for creating ambience, others struggle.
Over a quarter of a century, El Pirata has just about nailed it. Mostly that’s to do with the friendly staff who greet newcomers - even walk-ins like us - with genuine warmth, before showing them to a table or to the bar to have a drink while waiting for a table to come free. From the bar, you can peer into the kitchen where the chefs always seem to be working flat out.
It feels like a family-run restaurant - authentically its own place, not a pastiche of a Spanish bar. And if it is a little compact upstairs, that just adds to the sense of having been invited for dinner by the El Pirata family.
Given that it is in one of the most expensive property districts in the world, it offers startlingly good value too - it has an £11.95 lunch offer, and its introduction to tapas - which we all chose - is a mere £25 a head.
You can spend a lot of money in this restaurant - you could start by uncorking a bottle of Vega Sicilia Unico, which would set you back £695 - but you don’t have to, and El Pirata has a ‘best kept secret’ status among residents and local office workers who recognise the excellent value on offer.
The introduction to tapas, by the way, is a huge meal for a mere £25 a head with ten dishes for two to share that starts with a plate of salad, cured meat & seafood (it counts as one of the ten ). My favourite is the fritos de rape - deep fried medallions of monkfish, although the tortilla is tasty and light and the steak medallions in a garlic, red pepper and white wine sauce always disappear quickly. Not quite as quickly as the chicken croquettes though - I didn’t even get to taste one this time.
In an act of bravado I did order one extra dish - the patatas bravas (deep fried potatoes in a chilli and garlic sauce) - but it proved entirely unnecessary, and I was pleased to see my guests patting their stomachs and sighing ‘enough’ with a little food still on the table.
Despite the restaurant’s encyclopaedic list of Spanish wines, we shared a bottle of the house white (we met over a drink in Shepherd Market and we didn’t need more) and skipped the coffee offered by the delightful waitress who really was from Barcelona. Delightful, because she had a sweet sense of humour and looked as if she really enjoyed working at El Pirata, which she probably does. She even complimented me on my hat.
Even with the restaurant full to bursting, the front of house staff found time to shake my hand, thank me for coming and wish me a cheery ‘see you soon’.
Outside, it occurred to me that in all of the times I have eaten at El Pirata, I have not once tried one of the chef’s specials, which really do look fantastic - because the tapas menu always calls to me. It has become a habit. Next time, perhaps …
Incidentally, the name El Pirata means The Pirate, and that most famous pirate of the 21st century Johnny Depp (Captain Jack Sparrow) has been known to drop in when he’s in town.