Spuntino’s Burgers Add Sizzle in Porn-Shop Zone: London Dining

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Photographer: Richard Vines/Bloomberg

Restaurateur Russell Norman in London's Soho, where he has three restaurants in the entertainment area.

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Photographer: Richard Vines/Bloomberg

Restaurateur Russell Norman in London's Soho, where he has three restaurants in the entertainment area. Close

Restaurateur Russell Norman in London's Soho, where he has three restaurants in the entertainment area.

Photographer: Richard Vines/Bloomberg

Rupert Street in London's Soho is home to massage parlours and peep shows. It's also the location of Spuntino, a new diner. Close

Rupert Street in London's Soho is home to massage parlours and peep shows. It's also the location of Spuntino, a new diner.

Photographer: Richard Vines/Bloomberg

Waitress Rachel Day has the smile and tattoos you might expect at Spuntino., known for its offbeat service style. Close

Waitress Rachel Day has the smile and tattoos you might expect at Spuntino., known for its offbeat service style.

Source: Gerber PR via Bloomberg

The interior of Spuntino where bar stools are the only seating. Close

The interior of Spuntino where bar stools are the only seating.

Source: Gerber PR via Bloomberg

The interior of Spuntino where bar stools are the only seating. The table at the back is a former school chemistry bench. Close

The interior of Spuntino where bar stools are the only seating. The table at the back is a former school chemistry bench.

It’s easier to get an indecent proposal than a decent meal in Rupert Street. There’s a couple of peep shows and a Prowler sex shop, and I’m sure those guys in hoods on the corner all evening aren’t selling dreams.

“You want a massage?” a woman asked as I ambled up and down the street in London’s Soho, looking around, peering in windows, trying to find Spuntino, a new diner so hot that it doesn’t need a sign that’s visible to the, erm, naked eye.

Spuntino is Italian for snack, not a porn film title. It’s the latest venue of Russell Norman and Richard Beatty, who have cleaned up over the past 18 months in Soho with Polpo and Polpetto, two casual restaurants where you can’t make a booking for dinner and you can spend an hour waiting for a table.

At Spuntino, which is open all day, you can’t book anytime because there isn’t even a telephone line. Most of the 26 seats are around a counter and you just stand until one comes free. In the first week after opening on March 14, there were 1,000 customers. (There’s a small room at the back that seats seven around an old school chemistry bench on which you are invited to carve your initials. Mine are there: REV.)

The menu of American dishes is inspired by restaurants in New York, where Norman, 45, and his Australian chef, Rachel O’Sullivan, 39, made repeat visits in search of ideas. The macaroni and cheese at 8 pounds ($13), for example, followed a meal at the Stanton Social. Spuntino’s version includes the usual mozzarella and parmesan, with the addition of fontina and also chopped leeks for texture.

Tribeca Inspiration

It’s finished and served in an individual skillet and has so much rich flavor, I can’t remember tasting better. A group of Americans I dined with loved it, as they did the grits with Montgomery Cheddar, inspired by a version at Bubby’s, in Tribeca. Sliders -- or mini-burgers -- include one with salt beef and another with spiced mackerel.

Truffled egg toast (5.5 pounds) is one of the most popular choices: a thick slice of bread from Flour Power City hollowed out and filled with two yolks, surrounded by fontina cheese and cooked in an oven with eight drops of truffle oil. It’s gooey and also rich, so you might like to order a salad or a few eggplant chips with fennel yogurt. (The truffled egg toast is a homage to Ino, in the West Village.)

Among the desserts, peanut butter and jelly is actually peanut butter ice-cream molded to look like bread, with raspberry coulis. Another favorite is thinly sliced pineapple with licorice ice cream.

Kooky Tattoos

The food is very good but almost as important at Spuntino is the ambience. Norman has a knack for finding kooky staffers who are both very friendly and good at their job. There are more tattoos on display behind the pewter-topped counter than you might see at a Hells Angels’ convention.

The attention to detail at Spuntino is just extraordinary, right down to the ice cubes, which -- instead of being perfectly formed -- come in misshapen slices, just like at an American diner.

The most dangerous cocktail is the Sazerac, served Prohibition-style in a teapot. It contains a dash of Absinthe. Wine starts at 19.50 pounds a bottle. If you’re not on a budget, the A to Z unoaked 2009 Oregon Chardonnay at 45 pounds or the 2009 Pinot Noir Drouhin Oregon at 70 pounds are top picks.

Spuntino isn’t for everyone. It’s crowded and noisy. It’s also dark and the menu is hard to read. (There’s a “Torch of Shame” for those who can’t make it out.) You’re squashed in even before people start forming a line immediately behind you. I’d say it’s a young person’s place if I didn’t like it so much myself and if I hadn’t seen so many restaurateurs from around London enjoying the buzz.

One evening, my guest and I felt the need to take a break and stood outside for 10 minutes. First, a beggar approached and then two women who decided they wanted to embrace us. This appeared entirely acceptable behavior on Rupert Street until we realized they were going through our pockets.

If Spuntino is New York-inspired, Rupert Street is more like the Wild West.

The Bloomberg Questions

Cost? About 20-25 pounds for food, unless you are greedy.

Sound level? Starts at 75 decibels and keeps rising.

Inside tip? The bar stool at the far corner is for two.

Special feature? Tattoos.

Will I be back? Yes.

Date place? Perfect if you don’t mind waiting.

Rating? ***

What the Stars Mean:
****         Incomparable food, service, ambience
***          First-class of its kind.
**           Good, reliable.
*            Fair.
(No stars)   Poor.

Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70- 75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Richard Vines in London at rvines@bloomberg.net or http://twitter.com/Richardvines

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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