Polpo, 41 Beak Street, London W1F

When one Italian 'tapas bar' goes under, can it possibly make any sense to open another in the same spot?

What's the secret of a successful restaurant? Is there a code it's possible to crack or is it completely unpredictable? As someone who has been reviewing restaurants for seven years, I'm tempted to say that no one knows anything. That's the same conclusion William Goldman came to in Adventures in the Screen Trade, his celebrated book about Hollywood. Like the film industry, the restaurant business is a place for gamblers. If you win, you can win big, but the majority of the players lose their shirts – and, according to Harden's, there were some 64 noteworthy closures in the capital last year.

One of these was Aperitivo, a modest establishment on London's Beak Street that specialised in Italian tapas. To date, this culinary trend has failed to take off. Londoners can't get enough of Spanish tapas and the Hart brothers (Sam and Eddie) have put themselves on the map by capitalising on this phenomenon with Fino, Barrafina and Quo Vadis. But Italian tapas? It sounds vaguely inauthentic, like something dreamt up by the marketing department of Pizza Hut. If people want fast Italian food, they're perfectly happy with pizza, thank you very much.

In light of this, the decision to open another Italian tapas restaurant in exactly the same space seems like madness. Surely, this cuisine has been consigned to the waste disposal unit of history?Actually, no.

Polpo is the dreamchild of Russell Norman, who cut his teeth at Caprice Holdings. Having worked at a number of restaurants in that group, he understands how to pitch a new restaurant. Yes, you've got to have a decent chef – and he has that in the form of Tom Oldroyd, who used to work at Bocca di Lupo on Archer Street.

It's also important to get the décor right, and he's nailed that, too. Polpo has a rustic, cheap-as-chips feel, with a black-and-white tiled floor and exposed brick walls. Anyone poking their head around the door to take a look will instantly know they're not going to get fleeced in here. ("A very comfortable, very relaxed, downtown New York kind of a feel," says Russell.)

More importantly, he's got the marketing spiel right. He doesn't describe the food as "tapas". Indeed, when I asked the barman whether that's what they were serving, he looked shocked and said, "We don't use that word." No, the small, reasonably-priced plates of food on offer at Polpo are "cicheti". Polpo is not a "tapas bar", either, but a "bacari" (which, funnily enough, is the Italian word for "tapas bar"). Above all, this isn't "Italian" food. It's "Venetian".

To those outside the restaurant business, this may sound like splitting hairs, but Norman knows that getting this sort of detail right is the difference between success and appearing on the Harden's casualty list.

He claims to have been "inspired" by numerous trips to Venice since he was a little boy – but that's all part of the spiel, obviously. The point is, by making his Italian tapas very geographically specific – and by using all the proper Italian words – he has created an air of authenticity around his new restaurant. It seems like a labour of love, rather than an attempt to carve out a niche in London's cut-throat culinary trade. It has the feel of something new, too, an undiscovered cuisine, rather than a rehash of an old one. And novelty always sells.

I popped in on a Monday lunchtime and it was surprisingly full, given that it can seat a total of 65 people. I opted for a place at the bar, which suited me, as I was flying solo. After admonishing me for using the word "tapas", the barman made amends by making a delicious Spritz – a Venetian spritzer with a dash of Aperol and a large green olive. "You won't be able to stop drinking these," he said as he handed it to me – and he wasn't wrong, particularly as they're priced at £4.

With the barman's advice, I ordered a selection of dishes, including a potato and Parmesan croquette (£1.20), chopped chicken liver (£1.20), pizzetta Bianca (£4), pork belly, radicchio and hazelnuts (£5.50) and, to finish, ciambella and chocolate (£3.50). The croquette was a little bit ordinaire, but the chicken liver on crostini was excellent, as was the pork belly and the ciambella (ring cake), which was drenched in chocolate sauce.

But surely the most impressive thing was how quickly all the plates came out of the kitchen. I arrived at 12.45pm and was wiping the final crumb of ciambella off my lips at 1.25pm. Russell Norman said he had no plans to turn this into a chain, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see several more Polpos springing up over the next five years. Perhaps someone does know something, after all.


Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets

Polpo, 41 Beak Street, London W1F, tel: 020 7734 4479. Lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday. Total cost of food for one, £23.50

Second helpings: More tapas-style treats


15-17 Blandford Street, London W1, tel: 020 7935 5624

Truly wonderful Indian-style seafood, served in a tapas format, makes this notable newcomer a worthy namesake of the famous Mumbai original

The Pigs

Norwich Road, Edgefield, Holt, Norfolk, tel: 01263 587 634

Huge portions of gutsy British food – or, if you prefer, "iffits", or Norfolk tapas – have quickly made this quirky gastroboozer very popular


Jo's 209 Tankerton Road, Whitstable, Kent, tel: 01227 274 591

This open-kitchen operation has a big following for its tapas-style dishes; costs are kept low by the BYO policy. Excellent food in unpretentious surroundings

Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Life & Style
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates his goal
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal