o eat or not to eat? That is the question that plagues — well, if not the first date, then certainly the second.
A first date should really be in a pub or a bar; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. True, one might roll on to a restaurant in a bid to soak up the booze, but going straight to a restaurant for a first date is like comitting to a two hour, no-interval one-man show at Edinburgh Fringe: there’s no way out.
The second date, though, is the chance to straighten out the facts — helpful if the most salient details of the first date are a blur (you can remember they said their daemon would be a donkey, but not what they do for a living). Culinary compatibility is also important to most people, and if there are any dinner-based dealbreakers, they’re best learned early on. There’s a knack to nailing a second date spot. It must be buzzy, but quiet enough to fill in the gaps of the first date; have the option of booze, but not be booze-focused; and ideally entail pickable, sharing food that doesn’t feel too formal. Here are some of the best I’ve found.
The Tamil Prince
One category of venue that falls neatly into that Venn diagram is the pub that serves food, of which the Tamil Prince is a shining example. Taking over the 19th century pub on Hemingford Road, it brings a tree-lined, well-heeled Islington street together with beers, south Indian-inspired cocktails and sharing plates inspired by the cuisine of Tamil Nadu, head chef Prince Durairaj’s homeland. It is popular: you’ll need to reserve, and rub shoulders with food-lovers anxious to add its critically acclaimed grub to their grid. But it is still pubby, with people and pints spilling out on to the pavement, weather permitting. The shareable menu of both creative and classic dishes makes it perfect for two dining companions testing the waters. And, at the very least, it’ll expose anyone who can’t stand spice.
115 Hemingford Road, N1 1BZ, thetamilprince.com
Tucked at the foot of the Whitechapel Gallery, Townsend offers brave lovebirds the chance to kill two compatibility tests with one venue: cuisine and culture. Though the restaurant is slightly more formal than normally is advisable for a second date, the cool, often bizarre and sometimes comically baffling exhibits in the gallery are enough to ease anyone into conversation, and onto Townsend’s smooth wood and black-leather banquettes and menu of pickable, seasonal sharing plates. Vegetarians are well catered for with punchy salads and tangled oyster mushrooms topped with a golden egg yolk, and all parties will be pleased by the fried pink firs with garlic mayonnaise. Any last sense of stiffness can be easily removed by either an excellently executed Negroni or the genial staff.
77-82 Whitechapel High Street, E1 7QX, townsendrestaurant.co.uk
Bottle + Rye
Another place that falls fairly and squarely into the Venn diagram of perfect second date venues is the wine bar that does food, in precisely that order. Too often in London, restaurants lure people in under the pretence of being a bar, then expect everyone to order three courses. Not Bottle + Rye, which describe itself as being inspired by Parisian wine bars, and follows the model in all respects (other than the service, which is smiley and bright). One can rock up without booking and order one or two of its mostly low intervention wines, or book in advance, order a litre of Austrian field blend and an array of small plates including smoked eel brandade with pink fir crisps and — crucially — the best anchovy toast in London. The atmosphere is low-key romantic — if chalkboards, those life-changing anchovies and the lively, untidy fringes of Brixton Market constitute romance (they do in my book). Agreeably, the bill could be anything from £15 to £100 depending on what you have.
404-406 Market Row, SW9 8LD, bottleandrye.com
One for the wine lovers — or those looking to impress a wine lover — Bar Crispin’s drinks menu is as joyful and dynamic as Alex Price, its smiling curator. Formerly of the Draper’s Arms (the north London pub renowned for its wine list), Price unites beloved classics from the Loire, the Savoie and the Jura with bottles from lesser-known regions and grape varieties, and can talk through them all with infectious and intelligible verve. An interest in wine, though, is not a pre-requisite. Chef Fabien Spagnolo’s small plates will complement any wine but can easily stand on their own without it, with punchy flavours and interesting textural combinations (spiced cucumber with walnut mint yoghurt proved a particular highlight) that will bring forth exclamations of delight regardless of how well the conversation is flowing. The bar’s cool, washed grey and white setting meanwhile is as crisp as its name.
19 Kingly Street, W1B 5PY, barcrispin.com
That the only second date I had in Humble Grape was deeply average says far more about the company than about the venue, which is in theory a quintessential second date place. It is a laid-back wine bar with both counter and table seats, a decent selection of wines by the glass, a menu that caters to both snackers and scoffers, and engaged staff who will show diners a good time if it needs showing to them — though also know when to let people be. The themed days are worth bearing in mind, particularly for those who suspect their second date is Monday or Tuesday night material: on Monday you can drink its bottles in the bar at retail price, and on Tuesday you can try a mini tasting of four wines for £15, each selected around a different subject — there’s a conversation starter thrown in for free.
Across London, humblegrape.co.uk
Counter seating, shareable menu, buzzy atmosphere — even performance art courtesy of the staff who barbecue at your table? Koba is the polymath of second date spots. Every criteria for greatness is rolled into one refined, slightly space-agey Korean restaurant, which combines the cool comfort of leather stools and banquette with sleek, subtle induction fans (so your hair won’t smell of smoke should a kiss be on the cards) and a sizzling selection of soy-marinated meat and and seared seafood. Start with a soju, a liquor derived from rice or grain and at Koba, mixed into beautifully named cocktails like Honey Breeze, Cherry Blossom and Never Drunk (that one’s a lie: I tested it), or a refreshingly alcohol free plum punch. A literal fire for the aforementioned barbecuing will be lit as you sip, before your starters arrive on the table — the seafood pancake and the soft tofu with pan cooked kimchi are particularly memorable — and then its onto the mains, and by the time you’ve finished the last grain of gleaming steamed rice with the last bite of spicy pork belly and last gulp of soju, you’ll have ample fuel for a metaphorical fire, too.
11 Rathbone Street, W1T 1NA, kobalondon.com
“Needless to say, we banged that night; alcohol-free, on a second date,” was my friend’s take on Troy Bar, which delivers live soul, jazz and funk and homemade Caribbean food in an intimate and locally beloved bar on Hoxton Street. That said, it’s not really a dry date place — on the contrary, the alcohol-free list is almost solely limited to ginger beer; drinkers are far better served. But what it lacks in options it makes up for in vibrant, good-value food: jerk chicken, steamed fish, curry goat and sweet plantain . Then there are those (quite literally, as it turns out) banging vibes. Tuesday date people will be served an open mic session, while those willing to commit to a Friday will be rewarded with legendary jazz-funk jam sessions, to which regulars often rock up with their own instruments to join the talented, welcoming band.
10 Hoxton Street, N1 6NG, troybar.co.uk
I could write a thesis on why counter seats lend themselves to second dates, but I’ll confine myself to the fundamentals: they’re inherently informal, there’s limited eye contact (meaning no eyeballing someone while ascertaining their attractiveness), yet if all’s going well there is ample potential for jostling elbows and knees to make the first move. Llerena has plenty of counter seating, in a cosy and delightfully clattery tapas bar serving a wide range of pickable bits. Play it simple with cold cuts — the Iberico is particularly handsome — and sharp Spanish cheeses, or get stuck into heartier dishes, like arroz negro, croquetas, tortillas and gambas pil pil. In the manner of all great, good-value tapas joints, the wine list is short and cheap, the service incredibly friendly and slightly chaotic and there is never quite enough space for food, water and wine. A joy.
167 Upper Street, N1 1US, llerena.co.uk
For the hapless London dater, rarer and more welcome than an oasis in the desert is a bar that welcomes walk-ins and stays open past 10pm on a Tuesday. Bar Daskal is one such bar, and being in Borough Yards it is perfectly placed for second dates who are stumbling out of Barrafina or Brindisa — two other excellent second date-friendly tapas restaurants round the corner — and aren’t yet ready to call it a night. The drinks list is exclusively Spanish, which is no bad thing: think vermouths, sherries and interesting wines, expertly sourced by the Hart Brothers who grew up in Spain and are behind some of the best Spanish restaurants in London. The atmosphere is intimate, softly lit and buzzing, even on a Tuesday evening, and there’s also some jamon, cheese and tortilla wedges, for those who are still peckish or decide to come to Bar Daskal for the duration of their date (not a bad shout).
16 Park Street, SE1 9AB, bardaskal.co.uk
If Pinterest did a cocktail bar, it would look much like Nine Lives. Hanging tropical plants, rattan furniture, bamboo, brass and velvet — it’s all there. A date would get brownie points for taking me here before I’d even ordered a cocktail, which are even more tastefully executed than the interior design. Each house cocktail is ascribed to whichever bartender’s behind it, and all shrubs and infusions are homemade. The Lemon Song with Nine Lives limoncello, elderflower, crémant and soda is particularly punchy. The bar is zero waste and much of the furniture is salvaged, so even if your date proves unsustainable, you can rest assured the venue is. Food comes in the form of seasonal, sustainably sourced seafood tacos from the acclaimed Tigre Tacos, and is perfect for sharing, so long as you’re comfortable enough for a slightly messy meal out.
8 Holyrood Street, SE1 2EL, ninelivesbar.com
Not all second dates need to start with a stiff drink. Some can start with a stroll, pedallos or tennis; something to work up a thirst before turning to the matter at hand. Step forward, Lord Morpeth: a well-worn and well-loved boozer right next to Victoria Park, where you can do all these things before collapsing into one of this pub’s plump leather chairs. The Morpeth is a rare gem that has been revamped yet retained its old soul: there’s exposed brickwork, good tunes, chintzy wallpaper, decent cocktails and a host of local beers. More important than all of this however, is the excellent pizza. The Geezer, with salt beef, pickled gherkins and sweet mustard dressing, is its signature, but there’s plenty to satisfy the traditionalists and — with gluten-free bases and vegan cheese available — any dietaries. All in all, this is a casual yet cool venue for second-daters to decide if a third is worthwhile.
402 Old Ford Road, E3 5NR, lordmorpeth.co.uk
Renegade’s wines, made in London and labelled with the names and faces of Londoners, are always interesting and often excellent. The generously piled cheese and charcuterie boards are a relaxed yet resplendent way to eat on a date; the bar itself, put together in a ramshackle sort of way in a railway arch next to Bethnal Green station, is always inviting, as are the staff. Yet for me, the highlight of Renegade has to be the used furniture shop next door. Every day, its owners pull old fridges, cupboards and dishwashers into the same tiny alley Renegade sits on, making accessing the bar almost impossible. Every night, they pull them back. I’ve never seen them sell one. This, plus the eclectic crowd of people and dogs the aptly-named Renegade pulls in makes it excellent value even if the date’s going badly; and, if it’s going well, a consistently hilarious place to hang out.
Arch 12 Gales Gardens, E2 0EJ, renegadelondonwine.com