Spuntino is no soigné continental café. It is a place for quenching the libidinal urge of hunger, most probably accompanied by a skinful of booze
There will always be an upwelling of ‘scenes’ that are fleetingly ‘now’; pockets of ephemeral trendiness that rise without trace and then dissipate just as quickly. Case in point: Camden in the mid 90’s. If you were anybody who was anybody, this was where you were back in 1995. But then Menswear turned up, Tony Blair got out his Fender Strat and then everybody went home. Similarly, Shoreditch and Hoxton were where it’s at until about 2006. Now apparently it’s Bermondsey where it – whatever ‘it’ is – is happening.
Fashionable postcodes don’t start life that way. Cheap areas of town would by and large have attracted poor artists, students and writers who would lodge, eat and socialise in these areas, purely out of necessity more than anything else. Eating houses, cafés, pubs, bars, music halls, galleries, debating societies and bookshops would inevitably flourish. Fledgling vibrancy eventually becomes a Scene. But at some point a Scene becomes a Fashion and will eventually end its life as a tourist trap. From Montmartre to the Mardi Gras this trajectory has pretty much always been consistent. Yet what the scenesters and rubberneckers at the latter stages of this trajectory never quite grasp is that these areas, quite often poor, are where real people, real families and real communities also live. The grubby local boozer is no longer a Grubby Local Boozer but becomes “like, edgy and, like, real.”
Take areas like Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Hackney. You really need to go back to the 1980’s when there was any kind of scene: an art scene in actual fact. Whitechapel Art Gallery became a hub for artists and their exhibitions. Though not before recession became the crystallising factor in affording local artists the opportunities for creating temporary exhibition spaces and galleries in empty office blocks and derelict warehouses. From here, the Young British Artists movement was able to gain a foothold.
Fast forward quarter of a century and there is no longer any aesthetic or cultural reference points. There is no rebellion, no sense of subversion. It is all rather glib and flippant. Your archetypal Shoreditch Scenester “lies somewhere between MGMT, The Inbetweeners and Derek Zoolander” as waspishly articulated by journalist Alex Rayner. When all the cool kids un-ironically hunch around a table in Starbucks and say, actually say, things like “amazeballs” and “totes lolz” you know it’s time to pack up and leave. As Danny The Drug Dealer’s well-worn line goes, “they’re selling Hippy wigs in Woolworths, man”, although in this case, one would probably expect to find those really shit Shutter Shades. An ‘edgy’ East London postcode does not a counter-culture make.
There’s something rather prophetic about all this: the denouement of the actual Broyardian Hipster who Got What He Wanted. And with that in mind it is to Soho where we now return. For it was here, indisputably, that the Hipster subculture of the 1940’s and later the Beat Generation of the 1950’s took root in the UK. From as early as the 1930’s intellectuals, writers and artists were drawn to Soho’s back streets: a marginal and clandestine underworld all of its own. Out of sight of the squares, Soho developed as the capital’s jazz and blues epicentre when Club Eleven, London’s first and arguably most iconic jazz club opened its doors. It was all about the bebop; being hip to the bomb; wigging out in “a present that existed only on the existential wings of sound.”
From Hipsters to Ravers, the skiffle clubs materialised starting with a first floor room above a pub on Wardour Street in 1952. The Beat Poets gathered wherever they were able to. Before long Soho went electric with the opening of music clubs such as Whisky a Go Go, the 100 Club and the Marquee Club, and record shops (nowadays clustered around Berwick Street). What is clear is that over a forty year period there wasn’t a defined series of movements as such, more a seamless, amorphous evolution of a way of thinking. That and the right hang-outs, clubs and cafés.
Soho – its residents and itinerants – would have needed feeding. They may well have done so at Spuntino had they the opportunity. Spuntino is no soigné continental café. It is a place for quenching the libidinal urge of hunger, most probably accompanied by a skinful of booze. Located among the unmarked doorways, sex-shops and dive bars of the grubby end of Soho, Spuntino is itself an unmarked doorway and is as minimalist as it gets. It doesn’t even have a phone number.
It is a New York bar-cum-diner located stylistically and spiritually somewhere between Lower East Side and Greenwich Village. It clearly pays homage to West Village’s iconic Café Ino, though whether by accident or by design it is hard to say. The food melds New York bar food (Sliders) with Southern comfort eating (Steak’n’Eggs, Grits) and intermittent Italian influences (Mussels and Saffron Agretti). It is also mostly carbs-based (Mac’n’Cheese – undoubtedly useful for soaking up the drink), although some will no doubt be reassured to know there is lighter, more herbivorous fare on the menu in stoic defiance of all that swaggering starch (Jerusalem Artichoke and Treviso Salad). There is room for only 26 by way of stools around a central zinc-topped bar. The suitably down-town interior is dimly lit, but don’t let this fool you: a lot of effort has clearly gone into the seemingly effortless cool of glazed tile walls, retro prints and exposed low-wattage bulbs. Patrons are accompanied by a soundtrack of gutsy rhythm’n’blues with the occasional diversion through jazz and the more avant-garde.
Food is mostly ‘taster’-sized portions with a few larger ‘plates’.To start, Eggplant Chips and Fennel Yoghurt: the former in the now rather Hackney-ed military-style tin dish, the latter in a shot glass. This was brilliant, the chips were as precise a facsimile of actual chips as it’s possible to be without being potato. Their coating contained actual fennel seeds and had an extremely gratifying crunch. Evidence, I’m sure, of the triple-cook treatment.
Buttermilk Fried Chicken was served in a similar fashion. Fried chicken was once the time honoured staple of the 2am drunk. All gristle and slimy sinew it was often a good deal less pleasant than uvulating the corpse of a burns victim. Nowadays thanks to the popularity of American homestyle, Japanese and Korean street food vendors you now find that many a venue is trying to make their dude food the best it can be. A basting of buttermilk before cooking tenderises and enriches the meat and ensures the coating is fried to a perfect, golden crisp. Here at Spuntino I was on the fence. Their pieces were a bit small. They do it better across town in Jin Juu.
A focus of the menu is its (mini burger) sliders. Here, a Ground Beef and Bone Marrow Slider was coarse with a welcome seam of minerality from the bone marrow. A further tidal wave of salty savouriness came courtesy of a slathering of melted cheese. Small size but big taste. A ‘Brick Lane’ Salt Beef and Pickles Slider was a great recreation of its east end cousin and as tender as a baby. Others included, interestingly, spiced mackerel.
If Spuntino is renowned for one dish and one dish only then it can only be its unofficial house special of Truffled Egg Toast – a doorstep of white bread, egg yolk dropped into the centre, enveloped in Fontina cheese and truffle oil and then grilled. It is of course a cheese toasty, albeit one as rich as Croesus and twice as immoral. It has already sent countless online devotees sliding blissfully into a coma, and let’s be honest, probably a diabetic one. It remains a menu must-have although a Kohlrabi, Hazelnut and Black Sesame salad, light and snappy, proved the perfect antidote.
Brown Sugar Cheesecake with Drunken Prunes to finish. This is the end to a meal you would be disappointed not to find here. Creamily smooth, just stodgy enough and with a burnt, sour molasses tang. Who knew that bourbon soaked prunes would taste this good?
Drinks? Bourbon neat. And more bourbon. There is a comprehensive choice of the stuff and when perched at the bar like an amphetamine-frazzled beatnik you will want to indulge too. Cocktails tend towards the short and hard and for the more continentally minded Spuntino has a small, Italian-leaning wine list.
Soho, then, has always been ‘in’. It is not the sort of place that drifts in and out of fashion. Its streets have always been the capital’s iconoclastic and bohemian heart. It has certainly got all of West London’s coolest restaurant but then that is no surprise. Spuntino may be new to the neighbourhood – a mere upstart – but it has already become one of those coolest.
61 Rupert Street