As theatre food goes, I preferred the Almeida's production
Ham&High readers are blessed with not one but two world-class local theatres. The grande dame of the two – Hampstead Theatre – had humble beginnings. It started life in an old Scout hut in 1959 and graduated to the luxury of a temporary building in 1962.
Ham&High readers are blessed with not one but two world-class local theatres. The grande dame of the two - Hampstead Theatre - had humble beginnings. It started life in an old Scout hut in 1959 and graduated to the luxury of a temporary building in 1962. That accommodation served it well for more than 40 years until the new, purpose-built theatre opened in 2003 as part of the Swiss Cottage development.
To the east, the young pretender - the Almeida Theatre - was founded in 1980 by Pierre Audi. Its starter home was hardly more salubrious - a derelict ex-Sally Army Citadel in (what was then) a less than salubrious part of Islington. It too had an extreme makeover which was completed in 2003.
Both buildings include smart, purpose-built bar and café areas, which aren't restricted to play-goers. But while one is at least trying to provide its audience with nourishment on a par with the on-stage performance, the other clearly believes "the play's the thing", and has wholly failed to extend the experience from the performance to the plate.
I visited The Almeida early one evening just before show time. The café is text book Islington - wooden floorboards, a bare brick wall behind the bar, seven wooden tables and some black leather-looking chairs. It was busy and extremely noisy but lacking in luvvies. What it wasn't short of was noise, provided by a group of drinkers shouting over each other in thespian manner.
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There's a short menu - on a chalkboard behind the bar - of four main course dishes and a list of ingredient options (such as lemon chicken or feta and roasted courgette) that could be ordered either as salads or sandwiches. There are also salty snacks for those who just want something to soak up their drink.
My butternut squash risotto was the genuine article and not flavoured, boiled rice in heavy costume. It was stickily satisfying with strong butternut flavour. The side salad I'd ordered with it was fresh, colourful and clean.
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My mother chose to take her lemon chicken in a salad but it would have benefited from a doughy overcoat. Three or four slices of unadorned chicken breast lay on some mixed leaves, tomatoes and cucumber. Minimalist, size zero nosh.
My stepfather was man enough to order the vegetable quiche. The buttery but slightly tough pastry was decent if overcooked. The vegetables - red onion, broccoli and mushroom - were coated in a wobbly, savoury egg custard. No puddings are advertised, but it was clear from a nosey at other people's plates that some were on offer.
After cross-questioning, the friendly girl at the bar was forced to reveal that a chocolate brownie and a yoghurt cake were available. We took both but were disappointed. The brownie was an impostor, a chocolate cake without the requisite gooey, heaviness. The yoghurt cake was warm and had a heavy lemon flavour. Not unpleasant but with a batter-like texture that might have benefited from some more oven action. Both came with a large blob of crème fraiche.
The food was fresh, simple and prepared in the tiny kitchen at the end of the bar. While it wasn't all singing all dancing, put its name in lights, top nosh, this was decent, honest fuel. At £23.40 for a meal and mineral water for three, it was pretty good value too. If you've half an hour to spare before the show, it's worth a visit. If you've more than that, pop across the road to Conran's Almeida or one of the many eateries lining Upper Street.
Hampstead's café/bar is in a huge area shared with the box office. It's all metal and glass, pleasantly airy but the grey weather made it all seem a bit dreary. At lunchtime on a Friday afternoon, a handful of people were sitting at the tables.
The bar staff seemed more interested in their own conversation than me, so I had time to inspect the food. In a display fridge sat pre-packaged sandwiches, panini and wraps and a fruit display. On the bar, a Perspex-lidded box displayed mass-produced cheese straws and savoury pastries. Three more tiered plastic bar top display units showed off various pre-wrapped snacks.
A chalkboard listed tartlets, wraps and sandwiches. I chose a red pepper and soft cheese tartlet. The bar girl emerged from the kitchen bearing a tart in a foil case which she plonked in the microwave. Not surprisingly, the pastry was pale and flabby, the filling oily and wet. Mushy pepper was topped with grainy, white lumps of indeterminate flavour.
The salad might have saved the show, but (although fresh and colourful) was another let down. An oversized mound of strips of pepper (including indigestible green pepper), cherry tomatoes and mixed leaves were drowned in cheap, acidic balsamic vinegar.
After pushing it around my plate for a while I lost the will to eat and exited stage right. En route, I asked the barman if anything was made on site. Apart from the side salad, it wasn't.
What a dismal and a wasted opportunity. With an attractive, central setting and captive audience, this venue could be a destination in itself. There is little out there to compete, especially with the sad demise of the excellent and far more theatrical Globe restaurant. If they haven't room to cook, they could transform things instantly just by stepping outside and buying in some goodies from that odd Swiss Cottage market.
The Almeida is definitely the better of the two, at least trying to produce something decent, but neither of these world-class theatre offers food comparable to the entertainment which is a great shame.
Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage, Avenue Road, London NW3 3EX.
Telephone: 020-7722 9301
Food One star rating
Service Three star rating
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 10am to 10.30pm
Cost: Tartlets with salad £5.20; Sandwiches, panini and wraps £2.80 to £3.50
Café at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, London N1.
Telephone: 020-7359 4404
Food Three star rating
Service Four star rating
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday noon to 7pm
Cost: Main courses with salad sandwiches and salads
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