First impressions are not promising. I'm shepherded along gloomy, silent South Lambeth Road, past a huddle of dubious characters by an off-licence, before being thrust through the doors of number 169 for a spooky culture- warp experience. So this is where everyone's got to! Rebato's is packed with friendly young punters clustered around small tables, in a party atmosphere redolent of a proper Spanish bar - and I'm talking real Spain, not your themed affair manicured for English sensibilities.
Large-girthed waiters give us a warm welcome, and somehow spirit up a table for six. My Lambeth-local Vincent gives me an enthusiastic tour of the tapas menu, while his brother, Vernon, a long-time resident of Spain, delights in the wine list: Rebato's long-standing relationship with the Torres label has resulted in a good selection of bottles (with a choice of 12 Spanish brandies, for hardier clients).
We ordered a healthy spread, which arrived with a teetering mountain of bread. Vincent monopolised the octopus (pulpo): "because it's not too chewy and has lots of flavour". Gambas, too, met with his hearty approval: "very good; very rich and garlicky". Our token vegetarian, Verity, had ordered enough dishes to satisfy, though wrestling them from Vincent was problematic. Artichoke hearts? "Dripping in a vinegar sauce; lovely!" he mumbled, while eyeing up her patatas bravas. These really were for the brave - too spicy for me, despite the creamy mayonnaise. But the tortilla was a moreish golden cake of egg and spuds, bursting with flavour. Other staples - chorizo, stuffed olives, mussels - were equally excellent.
Waiters clattered back and forth across the tiled floor to a backing track of such cheerily naff tunes as "La Macarena". Vincent's favourite entertainment was watching people descend the incongruously grand staircase after visits to the loo - Quaglino's, this wasn't, but it provided a great opportunity for people-watching.
I nipped into another room at the back of the restaurant and found an older generation feasting at larger, smarter tables, against the marvellously kitsch backdrop of a fountain and pond, complete with goldfish.
We settled our very reasonable bill (pounds 13 each, including wine), and bid farewell to our new-found companeros.A slice of Spain for six people, for less than a Madrid return on easyJet? Now that's what I call southern comfort.
Rebato's, 169 South Lambeth Rd, London SW8 (0171-735 6388) The Gallery 76 Parry St, London SW8 (0171-820 9857)
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