PRESS AND REVIEWS OF LITTLE BAY
“Fancy your pasta with a side of Puccini? Your tenderloin with a dash of La Traviata? At Little Bay, it’s not just traditional French and Mediterranean dishes on the menu – you can expect some entertaining operatic accompaniment too.
On the night of our visit there was a lively mix of locals, tourists and others who’d chanced upon this little gem in Farringdon. Also popular with businesspeople, Little Bay offers an excellent-value set menu, as well as à la carte dishes and ever-popular Sunday roasts. There’s more than one branch to choose from, with five dotted round London and another opening soon.
As it was a balmy summer night, we opted for crispy-skinned sea bass with an asparagus and goat’s cheese tartlet and crushed new potatoes, along with a crisp viognier recommended by Rafael, the friendly manager. This was all followed by lemongrass and ginger pannacotta with poached rhubarb – a delicately flavoured combination, perfect for a sultry evening.
The food was fresh and well executed, but what really set Little Bay apart for us was the fun, relaxed atmosphere promoted by the talented tenor as he sung his heart out for us diners. Such is the popularity of this winning formula that advance booking at weekends is essential. Visit once and my guess is you’ll be back for an encore.”
“Did you know you could enjoy live opera and a really well-priced meal every week in London? Little Bay has other branches but I chose Farringdon as it’s pretty central (near King’s Cross and the City of London) and I had heard good things about the food and the entertainment here.
The dark red and gold theatrical interior should have prepared me for the fun evening ahead. The restaurant is on two floors (ground and basement) with a variety of seating from booths, tables for two and larger groups. Parties are welcome and the music and decor make for a lively atmosphere.
Staff are really welcoming and this feels like a great place to have as your ‘local’.
I visited with a friend and we chose only vegetarian dishes yet there was plenty of choice and the restaurant were able to suggest adaptations to other dishes on the menu too. The wine list was also extensive and we were happy to take a recommendation on a Chilean Merlot.
We each enjoyed a delicious three course meal and the food was incredibly well-priced with excellent presentation. But just because the food is good value that doesn’t mean it was low quality; not at all. The portion sizes were generous too.
As well as operatic classics – “Nessun Dorma!” was requested repeatedly by the lads in the corner – the singer also did Elvis, Dean Martin and Tom Jones numbers. A quick chat with the singer revealed he is actually half Italian and half Irish which explained his Irish accent when chatting to diners between songs. He attended the Royal College of Music for four years so he does have real talent and certainly knows how to entertain.
The restaurant did quieten down on the ground floor after the opera but we discovered the lower floor was still packed – more larger party tables – and they were enjoying the singing. It’s not a highbrow affair but he is good at what he does and makes sure everyone is smiling.
Could I find a downside to the visit? That’s actually pretty tough but it was very warm inside the restaurant but this could have been a combination of wearing too many winter clothes as it was cold and wet outside, plus the excellent wine and how much fun we had laughing and singing along.
Everyone I mentioned the restaurant to had a tale of a really enjoyable evening and I’m glad I’ve now visited so I can plan many return trips soon.”
“ARAUCOUS standing ovation is an unusual finale to a meal, but at Little Bay it somehow comes as no surprise.
This long-established chain of restaurants is famous for its rock-bottom prices, extravagant interiors and a general aura of Bohemian eccentricity.
The legendary ovation in question took place in its Croydon branch, where elevated opera-style dining booths peer out over the main restaurant floor. On certain nights, a singer works the tables, blasting out lung-busting arias. His foot-stamping applause caused the ceiling lights to crash to the floor, plunging the whole venue into darkness. Our recent dinner at the Farringdon branch was, mercifully, somewhat less dramatic.
The overall concept is the invention of owner Peter Ilic, a Serbian chef who opened his first Little Bay 20 years ago. He’s an old pro, cutting his teeth in the kitchens of Claridges and later launching various restaurants, including the first pay-what-you-think-the-food-is-worth menu back in 1985. Little Bay now boasts branches in Farringdon, Kilburn, Croydon, Brighton and Belgrade, the capital of his home country.
We chose to dine on a Thursday, when the singer struts his stuff. The candlelit restaurant was jam packed, upstairs and downstairs. The chef, apparently, often serves up a staggering 1,000 meals in a week. The simple menu offers European classics and a few seasonal specials, such as a sea bass with a brown shrimp butter sauce and a roast fillet of venison.
Starters are a bargain £2.95, with most mains around £7, so you can easily enjoy a three-course meal with wine for less than £20 a head.
The food, however, is far from the main attraction. We gawped at the theatrical interior, which is dripping with frescoes and cherubs.
The male singer soon appeared, buff in tight breeches, warning us to “Sit down and relax – I will be very loud. If anyone has any requests, except what time I will be leaving?” He was true to his word, launching into opera’s greatest hits and making conversation all but impossible. So we sat back to focus on the food.
Best of our starters were the well-cooked chicken livers, served on toast with salad leaves. My choux buns filled with crab were less successful. Of the main courses, my companion found no fault with her hearty serving of braised pork belly, paired with a slice of black pudding and Savoy cabbage, £6.45. I went for the special of half a roast pheasant, served off the bone, with a rasher of bacon, crushed new potatoes and a Calvados sauce, £10.50.
The side dishes deserve special mention. The crispy chips are fried in goose fat. A dish of green beans and broccoli were steamed to perfection. For pudding, we shared a simple and lovely sponge apple cake with lashings of custard.
All in all, Little Bay provided a fun (if noisy) night out. The performance was firmly tongue in cheek, the service charming. For the record, the singing is every Thursday and Saturday evening – so plan your night accordingly.”
“Little Bay doesn’t have an official mantra, but ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ might suit. This year, as every year, the gaudy, vaguely opera-themed decor remains the same. Faded gold and burgundy paint, fake rock-work and orgiastic frescoes continue to pepper an interior overlooked by a giant gold mask. The menu is unchanged too, with the line-up of Mediterranean-inspired meals continuing to incorporate old faves like a faux choux bun topped with balsamic glaze and hollandaise and filled with a mulligatawny-flavoured crab paste. A starter of baked field mushrooms arrived atop a dab of punchy red pepper sauce, and the roast pork lunch’s tender cuts of meat were drizzled in a lovely rich gravy. Quality is reasonable, so, as most mains cost around £9 and starters are near the £4 mark, bargain-hunters flock here. Don’t linger, though. Two different waitresses hovered to take our order, food came out of the kitchen so fast we risked burning our mouths, and the whole experience took just over an hour for two courses.”
“If you saw a plate of moules marinière on a menu for £2.25, would you be suspicious? What about a chargrilled lamb steak for £5.25? It’s going to be rubbish isn’t it? Sinewy, chewy, made with the cheapest cut of meat and slopped on a plate. Well, you’d be mistaken, for despite Little Bay’s knicker-dropping prices their food is almost entirely delicious. Almost, because the pieces of chicken breast in the halloumi salad are a tad on the dry side, and the cutlery on the table is a little bit greasy, but when dinner is only £7.75 before 7 pm and the first course consists of two juicy pig’s cheeks with creamy mashed potato and a rasher of smoky bacon with madeira sauce, how can one complain? Other great dishes are two baked Portobello mushrooms smothered in a sweet, red pepper hummus, and place fillets with a mound of garlicky spinach and crab meat dumped atop them, served with ribbons of cucumber billed as “spaghetti”. Portions are huge, and just in case the chicken salad isn’t filling enough it comes with a side of Soviet-style boiled potato, carrots and cabbage. The desserts are equally scrumptious – a pistachio and white chocolate parfait oozes sinfulness. It’s no wonder this minuscule Kilburn eatery is full, and to make use of space the four corners of the room have steps leading up to individual tables, a little like royal boxes at the theatre.
There are other branches of Little Bay in Farringdon, Battersea, Croydon and Brighton, all owned by the enterprising Peter Ilic, also responsible for Just Around The Corner, the now defunct Finchley Road restaurant without prices, where customers paid what they felt the chef deserved. This welfare-ist approach to dining out continues at Little Bay, as our meal comes to a grand total of £21.”
“How low can you go? Little Bay pushes the price for an approximately Frenchy, three-course bistro-style meal down to the bottom. Starters and puddings cost just £2.25 from noon until 7pm, rising thereafter to £3.25. Mains are £6.45 in the day, £8.45 at night. A bottle of French plonk, a table wine by J Moreau & Fils, costs £11.95. So you can easily be in and out of here, having had the works, for £40 for two.
And the word on Little Bay isn’t bad, including recommendations from the Evening Standard, with a listing in the recent London Restaurant Awards 2008 Guide — the general theme being that the food is far better than seems possible at these prices.
There are four Little Bays, in Battersea, Kilburn and Croydon as well as Clerkenwell. They belong to a Serbian restaurateur, Peter Ilic, who also owns a large hotel restaurant in Belgrade and has been running ultra-cheap restaurants in London for 25 years, including one called Just Around the Corner where customers were invited to leave whatever they thought the meal was worth.
All Ilic’s places have wildly over-the- top, operatic décor incorporating lots of Greek gods, often hard at it, feasting and raping. In Clerkenwell there’s a mishmash of gold and crimson, a ceiling of ruched velveteen in different shades of blue, suggestive of the sea, and an alcove that’s been bodged up into an imitation grotto.
In Battersea and Croydon there actually is opera sung to the piano in the second half of the week, and balconies and mezzanine floors are a big feature. You know you’ve gone out to eat here, regardless of what turns up on your plate.
That’s just as well. The dishes we tried weren’t great. Spiced avocado, tomato dressing and salad was some pieces of not especially fresh avocado clumped into a timbale and weirdly gingered up with what tasted like a raw curry powder mix. Warm mozzarella, caponata, crostini and rocket brought a couple of slices of average cheese, barely warm, with not very exciting caponata and toasted sliced bread, and a small handful of rocket. Fair enough at the price, but slightly lowering, nonetheless. Why bother? as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling unanswerably asked.
From the mains (chicken, lamb, duck, pork, salmon, etc) fillet of cod, crushed potato and fennel, putanesca sauce was a daft order on a Monday. The two pieces of cod, skin on, tasted a little tired, as though they had just seen the back of a long weekend. The buttery potatoes were nice enough, the head of fennel apparently just boiled rather than braised, while the olive-heavy sauce, trying to tart up tastelessness, didn’t much help.
Wild boar sausages with mash and beans, from the specials, was average pub fare — three dense, rubbery sausages on top of some mash that was reasuringly lumpy, indicating it had just been made, with a glutinous dark gravy, I suspect from a catering pack.
We could have moved on to apple cake with custard and vanilla ice cream, or profiteroles with cream and chocolate sauce. We didn’t. Instead, we tottered 50 yards down the road to The Eagle, one of the three great gastropubs run by Michael Belben (the others being Great Queen Street and the Anchor & Hope).
In these friendly surroundings a small glass of inky, velvety Borsao Tinto Garnacha 2007 felt suddenly restorative, a real bargain at £3. The most expensive dish chalked up here, grilled bream with purple sprouting broccoli and salmoriglio, cost £13.50 — but a little chicken and pepper risotto at £8.50 looked just as appealing.
So there’s a lesson. When money is tight, change your ideas, not merely your budget. There is absolutely no point in insisting on a simulacrum of a three-course bistro meal at a price that means it can never be much cop, however hard the restaurant tries. Instead, go for one fine plateful and a glass in the kind of place that wants you to eat that way. Simple.”