Tom finds both fine food and sanctuary at a Soho restaurant that hits the right notes
Eating at Rita’s “is like a dump of pure joy”
God, Rita is fun. After spending the previous hour at the Royal Academy, in the presence of the brutal beauty of Francis Bacon, we wanted something, well… a little less dark. And this little Soho restaurant is like a jolt of pure joy, from the sunniest staff beaming in good spirits to a soothing soundtrack of old classics, and the ubiquitous clinking of ice on the shaker.
Then there’s the menu, cheerful without being frivolous, mostly American, but with occasional forays across the Mexican border and odd hops across the pond too. It’s a clever mix of high and low, so buffalo wings alongside beef tartare, fried chicken parmigiana alongside gambero rosso and trout with Creole sauce.
We perch at our table and drink lively margaritas, nibbling gildas—those savory, salty Basque pintxos impaled on a cocktail stick, where olive meets anchovy and chili (in this case, a slice of jalapeño rather than the usual marinated version).
They’re big on provenance here, so the chicken wings are cut from a bird’s eye superior, the sauce getting the right balance of tang and spiciness, the whole plate covered in a burst of crumbled blue cheese.
Deviled Eggs, a dish that pops up in many places around town, is made with spicy Chinese bean paste, which gives the creamy cocktail classic an interesting edge. The BBQ Beef Tartare is smothered under a whole serving of herbs and enriched with raw vegetables, so the soothing chew of the excellent, subtly smoked beef contains the oddly welcome crunch.
Taquitos, crispy fried tortilla cigars, are stuffed with the fluffiest salted fish, dressed with chopped lettuce, sour cream and what looks like their version of a salsa macha, all dried chilies, scarlet oil and various roasted seeds. Close your eyes and you could be in a Veracruz market. Birria too, one of my favorite Mexican dishes, a large slice of lamb simmered, swimming in an intense and spicy broth. Wrap in fresh tacos, dip in broth, stuff with gob.
Finally, the chicken parmigiana, an Italian classic with red sauce, where the brittle and spectacularly juicy flesh is draped in melted mozzarella and surrounded by some kind of tomato sauce to put a smile on the goodfella’s face. Outside, the rain is falling. But with Rita, it’s all about warmth, restoration, and a happy refuge from the flood.
Around £35-£70 per person. Rita’s, 49 Lexington Street, London W1; ritasdining.com
DRINKS: Olly’s low-alcohol beers
The first time I tasted Lucky Saint blond beer, I was seduced. Unfiltered, with a game-changing delight, it’s just 0.5% alcohol but I barely noticed it. And at just 53 calories per bottle, it proves that great beers don’t need watering down to be brilliant. What blows me away is how cleverly they tie together all styles from light to dark, with the low alcohol factor being a welcome bonus. If you’re in the mood for moderation, your chance is here.
BEER OF THE WEEK Brooklyn Special Effects Non-alcoholic (0.4%) lager, £1.30, Morrisons. Hold on to your hats: this guilt-free tropical treat keeps the boozier competition away. Simply superb.
Erdinger Alkoholfrei wheat beer (0.5%), £1.30, Sainsbury’s. If you’re looking for a stylish refresh, this is as easy and fresh as it gets. Excellent with Thai cuisine.
Big Drop Galactic Milk Stout (0.5%), £1.55, Waitrose. Dark and velvety delight. I never miss the alcohol when I sip this delicious stout.
Small organic IPA beer (2.3%), £2.30, Ocado. Hoppy and heavenly, this organic gem provides great joy in small doses.
Lucky Saint Lager (0.5%), £1.80, Tesco. I stock up on it regularly and it’s a must for its unfiltered fabulousness. A smashing blond beer.