London is packed with themed, quirky and unusual restaurants, so there’s no shortage of dinner venues if you’re looking for a unique dining experience.
They’re not a natural feeding ground for food snobs, as you’re unlikely to get a spectacular meal in any restaurant where the main attraction isn’t the food.
But who cares if the grub doesn’t live up to the spectacle of the dining room when you’re sat next to a 30ft carving of a Zulu warrior, or being serenaded by an opera singer?
Crazy people, that’s who.
Here’s a round-up of some of the city’s weirdest places to wine and dine.
(p.s. It’s worth bearing in mind that gimmicky restaurants, even the really fun ones, are not usually the sort of places you’d visit twice. Thanks to this limited return custom, a lot of them regularly run special deals and discount vouchers to get new bums on seats – so keep an eye out.)
Interactive menus - Inamo, Soho
An actual human being shows you to your seats and brings out your dinner at this ‘waiter-less’ Oriental fusion restaurant, but the rest is pretty much down to you.
The tables double up as interactive screens where you can browse the menu, order your food and even watch it being prepared in the kitchen on ‘chef cam’.
You can order extra food or seconds of your favourite dishes at the touch of a button – making it very easy to spend an absolute fortune or eat so much you have to be rolled out of the building (luckily there’s also a button that calls you a cab, should you be so stuffed you can’t make the walk to the tube).
The crispy five-spiced pork belly and thai basil pana cotta are particularly nice and if unusual cocktails are your thang, inamo’s make use of ingredients such as saki, spring onion and chilli syrup.
inamo: 134-136 Wardour Street, London, W1F 8ZP
Reservations: 020 7851 7051
The damage: Small plates £3-£9, large plates £13-£17
Dining in the dark - Dans le Noir, Clerkenwell
The idea behind this ‘unique dining experience’ is that taking away your sight will heighten your taste buds.
That’s not why people go there, though (which is lucky, as the food is dreadful).
The real draw of eating in a pitch-black dining room is that it’s very, very funny listening to your friends pour wine in their laps and poke themselves with cutlery as they fumble around in the darkness.
Waiting staff – all of whom are blind or partially sighted – lead diners to their seats in a conga formation and will come and guide you to the loos (where the lights are on, should you be wondering) if you sheepishly call their name out into the darkness (also very funny).
There’s a choice of menus – meat, fish, vegetarian or ‘chef’s surprise’ – but you’re left to guess what’s actually put in front of you until the end of the meal, when you stumble blinking back into the bar and all is revealed.
I won’t spoil it by telling you the sort of dishes they serve, but I will warn you that none of it it’s very good – especially for what it costs.
But if you want something very different and fun (we laughed the entire time we were there) it’ll tick both of those boxes.
Dans le Noir: 30-31 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU
Reservations: 020 7253 1100
The damage: Approx. £40 for two courses, £50 for three, excluding drinks
Singing with your supper - Bel Canto, Lancaster Gate
One minute the waiters at Bel Canto are pouring your wine, the next they’re strutting between the tables belting out classic opera.
It’s surreal, but very entertaining and the note-perfect performances range from dark and dramatic, to the drinking song from La Traviata.
There can be a few awkward moments – coming back from the toilet as a new song begins means you’re stuck there for the duration – but it’s a small price to pay for having this impressive cast performing at the end of your table.
The French-inspired food – fois gras medallions, crab and Lobster Mille Feuilles, confit leg of duck – is just okay, but the menus are fairly priced considering the entertainment’s included and the table’s yours all night.
Bel Canto: Corus Hotel Hyde Park 1 Lancaster Gate, London W2 3LG
Reservations: 020 7262 1678
The damage: £39 for two courses, £46 for three, excluding drinks
As subtle as a VhuVhuZala – Shaka Zulu, Camden
The amount of time I’ve spent in Camden you’d think I’d be desensitized to all sorts of weird, but the scale of this South African-themed restaurant is mind-boggling and the décor is bonkers, even by Camden’s standards.
Enormous Zulu warrior carvings tower over diners and animal designs are etched into every inch of the walls and ceiling, making it feel more like something you’d find at Disney’s Animal Kingdom than in the Stables Market.
It’s certainly fun to wander round gawping at the barmy results of its reported £5m investment, but it’s let down by over-priced, mediocre food and consistently terrible service.
The Brai menu has a number of south African inspired dishes – bobotie, bunny chow, kudu, springbok and ostrich, to name a few – but none of it’s amazing and everything’s expensive.
The restaurant often runs promotional offers where you can pay close to a reasonable price for a set menu, so if you’re determined to see this place I’d recommend holding out for one of those.
Shaka Zulu: The Stables Market Chalk Farm Road, Camden, London NW1 8AB
Reservations: 020 3376 9911
The damage: Starters £6-£14, mains £13-£42
Celebrity spotting – Gilgamesh, Camden
The first time I ate at this pan-Asian restaurant, there were four TV ‘personalities’ eating separately in the dining room.
The second time I went there were two, but they were two of the same four that had been there the first time, suggesting that Gilgamesh runs some sort of B-list celebrity loyalty scheme.
Even with the odds of bumping into Sid Owen so high, I can’t help but have a soft spot for the place.
The dining room’s huge but resists being soulless and the décor’s extravagant without making you feel like you’re on an acid-fuelled African safari (a la neighbouring restaurant Shaka Zulu).
It’s not cheap, but the service is friendly and attentive and most of what I’ve eaten there – tempura, Thai chicken curry, spiced lamb shanks – has been really rather good.
The atmosphere on a Friday and Saturday night is lively, lending itself well to groups, and if you’re not completely skint after paying the bill (which is highly unlikely) it’s fun to move to a booth in the bar and make your way through the cocktail list.
Gilgamesh: The Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, London, NW1 8AH
Reservations: 020 7482 5757
The damage: Small plates £5-£17, large plates £13-£60
Keeping the kids happy – The Rainforest Café, Piccadilly Circus
If you’re looking for a restaurant to wow your kids, the Rainforest Café is the obvious choice.
The food –nachos, steak burgers, penne with smoked salmon etc – is average at best and overpriced, but you’re not here for a stunner of a meal, you’re here to watch the tropical interior mesmerise your offspring.
The dining room’s home to an enormous tropical fish tank and packed with trees and life-size, animated models of elephants, gorillas and crocs.
They also pull out all sorts of special effects to recreate rainfall, thunder and lightning – much to the delight (and occasionally, terror) of younger diners.
If you can eventually tear them away from all that, your next challenge is to get them out of the gift shop without costing you a small fortune in souvenirs.
The only way out of the building is right through the centre of it though, so good luck with that.
The Rainforest Café: 20-24 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 7EU
Reservations: 020 7434 3111
The damage: Starters £5-£10, mains £14-£23
Historic surroundings – Silk, Soho
It would have been a damn shame not to keep a courthouse that saw the likes of Mick Jagger, John Lennon and even Oscar Wilde in the dock intact, so I’m grateful to this Hilton hotel for using it to house their Asian-fusion restaurant.
Other than the large, gold-plated Buddhas behind the bar, the room remains a classic courtroom setting with the original bench, witness stand and dock from its days as Great Marlborough Street Magistrates Court.
Oak panelling and a glass vaulted ceiling give the room a grandeur that’s fitting with its history and the friendly staff take pride in filling you in on stories from its past.
The menu’s fairly expensive and a bit random (presumably that’s the ‘fusion’ bit) but the food’s to a high standard, with the delicious scallops seasoned with lime leaves a particular highlight.
Silk: Courthouse Hotel, 19-21 Great Marlborough Street, London, W1F 7HL
Reservations: 020 7297 5555
The damage: Approx £45 per person excluding drinks