Back in the heady days of the Gannet’s youth, when I was an impecunious fledgling studying something or other at university, my real education came in the bars and restaurants of Fitzrovia. There was the Tandoor Mahal on Warren Street, where the curries were described as “hot”, “v hot” and “f hot”. There was Gigs, off Tottenham Court Road, which served jolly good fish and chips and a nifty line in Greek-Cypriot kebabs (it still does, I believe). And there was a subterranean wine bar by Warren Street Tube station, which – if I had persuaded a fledgling of the opposite sex to join me – was the venue de rigueur for a romantic night out. Wax dribbling slowly down old beaujolais bottles, monkfish wrapped in Parma ham, Spandau Ballet on the stereo… What woman could resist?
Actually, nearly all of them, but I digress. A few shamelessly unreconstructed wine bars are still around – the Cork & Bottle just by Leicester Square and Gordon’s on the Embankment spring to mind – but the new wave avoids the term, fearful, I suspect, that their premises would be commandeered by floppy-haired men in shiny suits, canoodling with shoulder-padded secretaries and demanding garlic bread.
These days we go to places such as Vinoteca on Beak Street. We drink manzanilla and something delightful from the Languedoc, to wash down finocchiona or their famous “epigrams” (unctuously fatty lamb, breadcrumbed and served with sauce gribiche), then we swirl a glass of gigondas meditatively over the venison and girolle pie. Vinoteca has decent food and a great wine list: 25 by the glass (some from its 10-litre “bags-in-boxes”, a commendably eco-friendly trend in London at the moment) and 300 by the bottle, all available at retail prices to take away. You can even buy them online, or from Vinoteca’s other bars in Farringdon and Marylebone.
If the 1980s belonged to beaujolais (and whichever ill-begotten corner of Portugal was responsible for Mateus rosé), this is definitely the decade of the Loire, home to some of the world’s most delightfully eccentric winemakers. Now, it even has its very own wine bar: the Green Man & French Horn, on St Martin’s Lane, owned by the excellent Terroirs/Brawn/Soif people. Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc loom large on the list, and the food is splendid. Partridge with pickled walnuts, girolles (again – it was the season) and celeriac purée was particularly soothing and autumnal; radishes with anchovy mayonnaise were a pleasant reminder of summer.
There are foxy, feral, orange wines if that is your thing, but it also has more conventional bins and some fine, fizzy vouvray. “You wouldn’t even know it was natural,” said a nearby diner, sipping a glass of bourgueil and meaning it as a compliment, I think. Le wine-bar nouveau est arrivé.