EATING OUT; Forget the food, feel the beat

EL BARCO LATINO; Temple Pier, Victoria Embankment, London WC2R 2PP. Tel: 0171-379 5496. Open daily: Mon-Sat, noon to the early hours; Sun, noon to midnight. Three courses, pounds 12.50. Tapas buffet, pounds 15.50. All credit cards except American Express
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The Independent Culture
YOU APPROACH El Barco Latino - a floating Colombian restaurant and dance-haunt moored on the fast-flowing waters of the Thames at Temple pier - via a frilly canvas tunnel reminiscent of the tighter-budgeted wedding or hotel " banqueting suite". This is a heart-sinking moment if you have lured a party of London friends here with outlandish boasts of atmospheric salsa dens. Nights out on boats on the Thames - along with cream teas next to Sherlock Holmes's house, scenic rides on open-topped buses, and visits to the Tower of London wearing green and purple bum- bags - are not the sort of thing your Londoner rushes towards with yelps of glee.

By repute, El Barco would offer a more authentic taste of contemporary city life, teeming with real Colombians. This began to look unlikely as the frilly tunnel gave on to a long see-through boat peopled by tables of unhappy looking Japanese and another where men in white tuxedos were making a noise. Happily, neither horrid haunt turned out to be El Barco. A rough painted sign led across a wobbly pontoon to a much more satisfactorily dodgy-looking ferry, with plastic chairs stuck to the deck, and a exotic, sluttish-looking beauty slumped in the wheelhouse.

A staircase led below deck to a wood-lined space, a bar at one side propped up by a brooding, leather-coated man with an enormous moustache, bare wooden tables at either end, and an unfeasibly small floor for dancing. El Barco recommend - as a polite preamble to insisting - that you come in a group to eat, book in advance and turn up early, like about 8pm, since " It gets bit noisy later, love": an audaciously blatant understatement. At eight it was pretty quiet. By nine, getting across the dance floor required tactical planning and you had to shout very loud to communicate over a space of three inches - but it was great.

"Do you have a local Colombian drink?" we had cooed sycophantically on arrival, imagining brimming earthenware jugs of violent Margaritas. "Hot water," said our waitress, unfathomably. "Otherwise normal drink."

El Barco is not into plastic menus sporting smiling Sombrero-clad chilli beans or hamburgers sipping pina coladas. There is no truck with ersatz Colombian theming: no mock rolled-up pounds 20 notes, razor blades and mirrors as table decorations; no amusing signs saying "Ladies Powder Room" followed by three exclamations marks. Instead, photocopied menus - including a set three-course meal at pounds 12.50 - offer the sort of food that transposes you much more effectively to a Bogota cantina. "I'll eat absolutely anything, I think. But this is horrid even by my standards," said one friend mildly, toying with a sausage starter accompanied by "something disgusting. A dumpling maybe?" The sausage seemed to reappear in another friend's main course, accompanied by a full fried breakfast.

Those who fared best had gone for the simplest things. Prawns in lemon and coriander; a " skirt steak" served with cassava and potatoes were both eaten - a great compliment to the chef. My aubergine topped with cheese starter was a bit chewy but the Cazuela Barco Latino , a seafood casserole, was more than edible. Breast of chicken escalope cooked in tomato sauce was less successful: its name, Pollo Salsa, being taken to mean people had been dancing on it the night before, and the slurs on its reputation peaking when one friend looked at it and said, " Oh, I didn't know they did pizzas."

The food, though, was by the by. As one friend explained, "I loved the Colombian girls with their tight jeans and tight corsets which thrust their breasts up and out," and another expanded, "I love the Colombian girls with their tight jeans. and greasy ringleted hair and shimmery evening- dress tops and underwear showing as if they didn't care, moving like in your dreams like eels on the end of a line."

So much loved are the Colombian girls in their tight jeans, and so vulnerable to predators in a tiny boat moored on the Embank-ment all night, that after about 8.30pm a gate or gangplank policy is introduced; so draconian is this that it proved almost impossible for our party's latecomers to get in. "But you don't understand, I've been working on a television programme," said one desperately. "I've been filming," said another.

All boasts and protestations, however, fell on an extraordinary number of deaf bouncers' ears. "Very nice. You wait in the queue." Even late on, when pounds 8 entrance fee for two final guests had been added to our bill, they were still made to wait. "But I'm reviewing this for the Independent on Sunday," I finally burst out hoity toitily, shivering as the Thames slapped against the side of the boat. "Yeah. Very nice. They wait in the queue."

Meanwhile, below deck the writhing and twirling went on. It's best to go in a group but dancing with strangers is very much the thing; though where I say "dancing", trying to jig about gaily with a total stranger attaching himself to your thigh might be more to the point. The bill was produced at about midnight and came to pounds 192 for 10 of us, service and drinks included. The drink, Latin music and sweat continued to pour out and trousers, tops and foreheads competed in shininess. There was a brief, puzzling interlude when we found ourselves dancing to Coolio's "Gangster's Para-dise" instead of rumbas or salsas but this made strangely little difference to the floosyish wrigglings. Before we knew it it was 3.30am, and wet, wild-eyed and-mad haired, we staggered out into the Thames wind, startled to remember we had been on a boat.

"It's like stumbling across another life, one of those little colonies of London you never know about," burbled one of my friends, teetering almost parallel to the gangplank in her heels. We all agreed it had been fantastic - a totally original, authentic place, where you'd have to be a total stiff not to have fun - even if the chicken portions do turn out like pizzas.

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