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Valentine's Day: London's most romantic but raucous restaurants perfect for a lively date

Bar Lina: a cosy but enthralling spot in Soho (Press handout)
Bar Lina: a cosy but enthralling spot in Soho (Press handout)

Though in reality there are as many types of couples as there are restaurants to cater for them, for the purposes of this article there are two: those for whom ‘date night’ means dressing up and having serious chats over candlelit tablecloths, and those for whom it means a ridiculous, potentially even raucous time.

This list is for the latter; the couples, throuples or quadruples who want to giggle and goof around, as well as talk to each other. After all, nothing says true love like laugh-snorting through your low-intervention wine.

Tsiakkos & Charcoal

Tsiakkos & Charcoal
Tsiakkos & Charcoal

“Very random, family run, unbelievable food and fun vibes” was how my friend first sold me Tsiakkos and Charcoal, a long-running Greek restaurant in Notting Hill. “Get the set mezze. The food just comes and it’s mad.”

Enough said – though for the sake of exposition I will add that this place is as conducive to couples having a good time as it is the whole posse. The passion the staff have for their customer’s enjoyment is as sizzling as the pork souvlaki, which arrives skewered and spitting from the chargrill. The Greek salad is as it should be: a thick wodge of quality feta crowning a tumble of tomatoes and cucumbers, dressed with quality olive oil; so too is the nutty humus, served with warm pita bread. It’s a place to linger in – not for the soft music and candles, but for the laughter bouncing off the old wood panels and the dregs of a great bottle of wine, most under £20.

5a Maryland Road, W9 2DU, tsiakkos.co.uk

F.K.A.B.A.M

Almost sentimental: Bakken Special (Adrian Lourie)
Almost sentimental: Bakken Special (Adrian Lourie)

The lights are low and the food is for sharing, but that’s as close as this place gets to a typical romantic restaurant. The rest is raucousness. This borderline anarchic restaurant, formerly known as Black Axe Mangal, is the brainchild of Lee Tiernan, an utterly music-obsessed chef. Perhaps not such a surprise, then, that it was born in the back of a nightclub in Copenhagen, before moving to Highbury Corner behind an unassuming black frontage. The music is loud, eclectic – yet mercifully unpretentious, for all the lack of signage and profusion of beards and edgy tattoos. The food – part bistro, part Turkish mangal grill house, part inspired by Tiernan’s ten years at St. John Bread and Wine – follows suit. Think lamb offal flatbreads, prawn cocktail-dusted pig skin and hash browns with burnt onion crème fraiche, followed by a blood orange and vermouth trifle.

156 Canonbury Road, N1 2UP, blackaxemangal.com

Speedboat Bar

 (Press handout)
(Press handout)

A pool table, a tower of Singha beers, bright blue cats dotted all over the walls, a banging Eighties soundtrack: Speedboat is as fast, thrilling and escapist as the name. Naturally, this being a Luke Farrell place, the food and drink are along similar lines: deep-fried chicken wings with a salty-sour seasoning, purple aubergine stir-fried into a mix both fiery and fudgy, curries and salads laced with herbs brought back from Thailand (where he cooked for 10 years), and cultivated on his Dorset farm. It’s a colourful, playful menu served alongside equally colourful cocktails, in a space any couple predisposed to silliness will feel at home in. The Drunkard’s seafood and beef noodles, allegedly invented as a hangover cure, will hopefully act as a preventative measure for those planning a heavy one.

30 Rupert Street, W1D 6DL, speedboatbar.co.uk

Brat x Climpson’s Arch

 (Press handout)
(Press handout)

Though technically the second opening from the now-celestial Welsh chef, Tomos Parry, Climpson’s Arch was where it – Brat, Mountain, that wood-fired bread with anchovies – all began, back when Parry first moved to London from Cardiff and started a barbecue pop-up. It’s where he got picked up by the owner of Kitty Fisher’s and kick-started on his precipitous route to fame. He’s since gained two kids, two Michelin stars and three restaurants, but the Brat he opened here, in a covered courtyard of brick and corrugated steel, still has that sense of being young and carefree. It’s a place to sit at the bar, chat to the staff, and order again and again from the blackboard menu. One grilled bread is never enough, and neither is one glass from the extensive list of low intervention wines.

374 Helmsley Place, E8 3SB, bratrestaurant.co.uk

Daffodil Mulligan

 (Haydon Perrior)
(Haydon Perrior)

Daffodil Mulligan is a low-lit restaurant running on punchy cocktails, flame-grilled meat and raw seafood, squatting snugly above an Irish bar serving good Guinness and live music. That’s a recipe for raucous before one even considers it’s from Richard Corrigan, famously the first chef to pop the Champs and the last to leave. Start with Jersey rock oysters – a cliché, sure, but a giddily fresh one, dressed with grapefruit and Szechuan pepper – throw in a Mangalitza black pudding croquette and a wood-fired brill laced with celeriac and vermouth for good measure, then head down into the low-ceilinged gloam of Gibney’s for great craic, the friendliest strangers outside Ireland and the ever-present possibility of dancing.70-74 City Road, EC1Y 2BJ daffodilmulligan.com

Caia

 (Press handout)
(Press handout)

“It’s grilled salsify with tahini, house made ketchup and – well, I like to think they’re reminiscent of Doritos Chilli Heatwave,” says Caia chef Luke Simmons of the ‘nduja crumbs gracing our fun, flavour-packed starter. Next comes a blistered stone bass in an iridescent “green curry” sauce clarified with butter and served with pickled cucumbers. “If my mum heard me call it green curry, she’d kill me,” Simmons grins. Caia – named for the Roman goddess of fire –  prides itself on its music as much as its grill, and the acoustics are extraordinary, as is the vinyl collection. Here is the sweet spot between a banging playlist and atmosphere and being able to hear one’s beloved speak. But the food is what makes Caia really sing: big, fun flavours combining childhood memories and fast food with fire and classical French training. As ever, the counter overlooking the grill and Simmons’ good-humoured team of chefs is the place to be.

46 Golborne Road, W10 5PR, caia.london

Bar Lina

[object Object] (Press handout)
[object Object] (Press handout)

Enchanting as an extensive menu can be, it can also stand in the way of a good time, rather than enabling it. When one is in pursuit of a truly lively evening, one does not want to waste precious minutes flip-flopping between flavours of croquettes. Step forward Bar Lina: the chic, subterranean little sister to Soho’s Lina Stores, and a place where cocktails come before small plates. The small plates are good, of course: fried Parmesan polenta, mushroom and truffle, ossobuco arancino and Parmesan biscotti with stracciatella all reflect Bar Lina’s restaurant heritage, but they are there to facilitate fun rather than take the main stage. It’s not open late – last orders at 11 – but then, it’s in Soho, one of the few left places in London where those looking for a late one are spoilt for choice.

18 Brewer Street, W1F 0SG, barlina.co.uk

Ciao Bella

Ciao Bella is fundamentally unserious. Spilling out onto the pavement of London’s otherwise refined Lamb’s Conduit Street, it is a loud and irreverent riposte to this city’s more recent generation of Italian restaurants, the ones serving food which is beautifully cooked and lovingly sourced. Large portions, low prices, and a pianist willing to play any song you throw at him keeps the dining room busy – and the wine glasses full. It’s not for everyone. The quality can be hit-and-miss and the staff, while charming, are not concerned with attention to detail. They are, however, there for a good time, with each other and with the diners. It’s more Big Night than Lady and the Tramp, but any attempt to recreate that scene would be actively encouraged. Besides, sometimes, a Big Night is just what one needs.

86-90 Lamb's Conduit Street, WC1N 3LZ, ciaobellarestaurant.co.uk

Palomar, Piccadilly

Background: The Palomar, where Mitz Vora was sous chef
Background: The Palomar, where Mitz Vora was sous chef

“Pleasantly bonkers” is how the food critic Grace Dent described the Palomar in this paper 10 years ago, and pleasantly bonkers it remains. The music is loud, and the staff move to it, whether they are shaking sours, stirring the inevitable Paloma Palomar or banging a ras el hanout chicken on the flames. The food and drink are peerless wherever one perches, but it’s the counter where things get seriously raucous – and romantic, too, if one likes jostling elbows while tearing at kubaneh (similar to challah) and trailing it though baba ghanoush or tahini. I’ve been to Palomar in every mood: jaded, joyous, anxious, apocalyptic – and have always been buoyed up, even the night before lockdown. The only risk is it is impossible to exit without wanting to extend the evening, which is what the reliably rowdy Blue Posts pub is for.

34 Rupert Street, W1D 6DN, thepalomar.co.uk

St. John Bread and Wine

 (Elliot Sheppard)
(Elliot Sheppard)

Proof that one needs neither music nor colour to have a raucous time is St. John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields. Perhaps it’s the buzzing open kitchen, or the light and happy clatter bouncing off the bare white walls. Perhaps it’s because the food and wine it serves are always slightly tongue in cheek, and sometimes literal crispy pig cheek, served with chicory and radish. Whatever the sorcery, there’s no denying that here, as at all St. John restaurants, one’s dishes and fellow diners provide the colour and the music: be that an boiled egg draped with anchovies, a roast hare decorated with dandelion, or blood orange sorbet swimming in a shot of vodka: the perfect precursor to a night in the sheets or on the tiles.

94-96 Commercial Street, E1 6LZ, stjohnrestaurant.com