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A perfect Latin-themed Soho evening.

by Rajul on July 23, 2010

Wonderful, melt-in-the-mouth scallops enjoyed at Barrafina in Soho - perhaps London's most authentic tapas bar

On a recent summer’s evening, a friend and I decided to check out Barrafina, the tapas bar in Soho that everyone’s talking about, followed by Latin American cocktails at the Soho Hotel’s “Refuel” bar.

Having sampled real tapas all over Spain, I am very sceptical when it comes to any UK-based restaurateur’s interpretation of tapas.

What we Brits often don’t get (which Spaniards excel in) is that good tapas is utterly simple: ultra-fresh ingredients served in a basic, almost plain way.

The point is that the ingredients should be doing all the talking and need not be overly-embellished.  In Spain, tapas bar owners proudly celebrate the freshness and quality of their produce at every opportunity.

That’s why they hang local pigs’ legs by the bar and display the day’s catch at the centre of the counter.  Only tourists ask for menus, since locals will usually use their eyes or ask the bar owner for what is freshest.

The other thing about good tapas is the ambience and the fact that you should ideally see the food being prepared in front of you.

So after years of disappointment, I was looking forward to see if London finally had a proper tapas bar in Barrafina (Frith Street) – which several friends from Spain had told me was the real deal.

This proper Spanish tortilla was lovingly prepared in front of us at Barrafina

The first thing you notice is the huge queue usually snaking its way around the corner of the bar.  The second is the fact that it is literally a counter bar – just as you’ll typically find in Spain.  To be honest the wait is not too bad, because they’ll thoughtfully serve you a glass of wine and nibbles while you wait.  And the friendly staff do their best to keep things moving.

But the fun really starts when you finally make it to your bar stool.  There is a menu but the whole point of this place is the daily specials.

This gorgeous sea bass - delightfully fresh and flaky, served on a bed of peas - was one of the daily specials when we visited Barrafina

And what a treat they were.  When we visited they included delicious sweet scallops, immaculate sea bass, authentic Spanish tortilla and crunchy seasonal asparagus – all washed down with some lovely Spanish wine.

Watching the chefs get to work only makes your mouth water even more.

Barrafina also serves Spanish “classics” like the abovementioned tortilla, ham croquetas, pimientos de padron, chorizo, jamon de jabugo and more.

Literally a few minutes walk from Barrafina is one of the most stylish hotels in Soho – aptly named the Soho Hotel.  It has stayed near the top of the TripAdvisor London hotel rankings for absolutely ages.

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It’s a great choice if you like a designer-style hotel which backs this up with substance in the form of consistently good service.  And while it’s not as cheap as the nearby cleverly-marketed Dean Street Townhouse, you can always pop in for a drink in its Refuel Bar like my friend and I did.

We sampled a caipirinha and mojito (as pictured below) and loved the ambience of a place which we found to be surprisingly unpretentious (and not a celebrity in sight despite the hotel’s reputation).

A caipirinha paired with a mojito at the Soho Hotel Refuel Bar - both were properly made and did not skimp on the core ingredients

Check the best rate for the Soho Hotel from 30+ hotel booking sites

As a bar it certainly made a change from the celebs’ favourite May Fair Hotel bar where service can be a bit slow if you are a mere mortal.

But on the other hand, it wasn’t quite as cosy as the Egerton House Hotel bar or indeed the “sinful” Lanesborough Garden Room – both of which have also recently featured on this blog.  Do note too that the Soho Hotel also serves a glass of bubbly in its decadent “fragrant” afternoon tea – if you want to begin your indulgence as early as the late afternoon!

We’ll be blogging further on London’s best hotel bars shortly – but in the meantime, if you hanker for an authentic taste of Spain then we strongly recommend that you brave the queues and try Barrafina!

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Photo credits: Soho Hotel (Firmdale Hotels).

Note: we paid our own way and conducted our visit anonymously in both the above venues.

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