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The Wine Theatre, Southwark, London

The Wine Theatre


Here’s the winner of the monthly TFYS award for Most Boring Menu. It reads like a species of dilute Jamie Oliver, a sleepwalker’s wander down a well-wandered path. Hazily Mediterranean, Brit-friendly staples: carbonara, garlic bread, lasagne. It’s food so sterile it’s had a vasectomy, ideal for diners with the itchy-footed adventurousness of paranoid agoraphobes. How I wish the chef had enough self-respect to include just one thing with a bit of interest, a dish to snag the eye and pique the senses. I don’t know, a bottarga maybe. Or a nice piece of liver.

The Wine Theatre opened recently on an ugly road in Southwark, far from Borough's madding crowd. When I showed up, it was bleakly deserted, and a pretty waitress was reading the Metro. ‘I’ve booked for two,’ I proffered, rather redundantly. She lifted an ambitiously large reservation book and opened it at random, to a page joyfully bereft of writing. She studied this intently, apparently scanning through hundreds of bookings. ‘Yeeess… What was the name?’

I told her, and she looked up, throwing a long gaze round the room, as though overwhelmed by the heaving bodies, bustling staff, clinking crockery, kitchen cat-calls and scraping chairs, as she searched for a tiny corner to squeeze us in among the hubbub. I looked around the empty space, which has the optimism of a dentist’s waiting room, and asked if we might sit outside. ‘Um… I think that should be fine.’ No-one else showed up.

In a breathless preamble to its menu, The Wine Theatre makes much of its ‘philosophy’, the ‘aperitivo’. There’s a great deal of branding puff around ‘aperitivo’, as if it were the most radical gastronomic concept since Theophanu, the tenth century Byzantine Empress, popularised the fork. From what I can gather, ‘aperitivo’ consists of a free nibble with your drink. Hardly the Shock of the New.

I went with Robert McIntosh, who writes Wine Conversation. He chose a deliciously light and supple Barbera d’Asti, perfect for lunchtime. Which was just as well, because this was some of the blandest food I’d eaten in ages.

Robert’s starter reeks all the way from the kitchen. It’s a noisome dish of pastey sardines and overcooked onions spattered with raisins, like fishy muesli. I have a revolting salad of squid and olives. The squid is pre-frozen and cut into stumpy fag-butts, surrendering all pretence of flavour. The olives are sliced, and straight from a tin. At what point, do you think, does someone decide an olive would taste better sliced? Do these people lie in the bath and say to themselves: ‘Olives are a perfect size to pop in your mouth. Humans have grown them for as long as they’ve grown anything. We have machines nowadays that stone them if you can’t face spitting out the pip or putting your dentures in. So the only way we can improve on this is by cutting them up into meanly astringent little slices, like caustic Polo mints, and steeping them in horrendous vinegar’?

I can’t understand the logic. Why would anyone, anywhere in the world, want to eat a sliced olive? Chopped into tapenade I well understand; stoned I can just about handle; but these are pocked, mutilated monstrosities, an insult to the noble name. The best thing about the dish is the griddled ciabatta on the side, though it makes Jadis look warm.

My main course is slightly better. ‘Fettucine with prawns’ turns out to be a clump of coldish pasta with two anaemic prawns on the side. It comes with courgettes (the menu promised rocket) which were cooked ages ago and are bracken-brown and slimey; and some chunks of cat-food tuna. The prawns weren’t prepped properly, and each carries a streak of intestinal waste down its back. Robert has a lasagne which I strangely forget to taste, though it doesn’t look bad. I finish with an amaretto crème brûlée, which had sounded interesting. But rather than spiking it with Amaretto liqueur, which I’d hoped for, they’ve crushed amaretti biscuits into the custard, a terrible idea. The soggy crumbs give it a mouthfeel like a frog spawned in it. I don’t finish it.

Some might argue that, because the restaurant has the word ‘wine’ in its name, I should make allowances for it. The drink’s the focus here, they’ll say: it’s wrong to concentrate on the food. Well, this is a food blog, and The Wine Theatre is a restaurant. Its solitary waitress is friendly and amenable, its wine list is sound, and its loos are spotless. To use a technical term, though, its food is pants. I give it six months before it’s curtains.

The Wine Theatre, 202-206 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1
Tel. +44 (0)20 7261 0209

See on the Map

Lunch for two, including drinks and service, costs £75

The Wine Theatre on Urbanspoon


All pictures mine except the exterior shot, courtesy of the London SE1 Community Website


  1. Such a shame - it's not a bad idea in theory. If you're in the area again, you might try Viva Verdi on Canvey Street for a glass of red, some aged Parmigiano and glorious, endless Parma ham.

  2. Oliver, you've not had much luck lately it seems. Although, if you don't mind me saying, I think your reviews are much more entertaining, full of razor sharp wit when you've had an awful meal.

    I find it so depressing to eat in a restaurant when I know its doomed - there was one near me locally called "Acquiescence" the owners had obviously worked hard setting it up - but it was always empty....the God Awful meaningless name, the floor to ceiling windows with no blinds - so every passerby can gawp at you eating, and the too bright lighting in the evening saw to that. The food might have been stunning, but its the little things that draw people in - and I'd say the identity and naming is a biggie - get that wrong, and your finished. Anyway - not suprisingly - it lasted 6 months and is now closed.

  3. Kate - Nice to see you commenting again on this blog. Thanks a lot for the suggestion, I'll definitely try out Viva Verdi when I'm next in that part of town.

    Dan - Thanks for your generous comment. Acquiescence is probably the most unambitious name of any restaurant in the history of the world. No wonder the place didn't survive. The thing about The Wine Theatre is that its owners would have clearly been happier running a wine bar: you have to wonder what possessed them to try and serve proper food as well.

  4. Deary me. You certainly have had a bad run! That pasta sounds awful.

  5. This place got a similarly scathing review in the Gruaniad at the weeked. The words 'durex' and 'lubricated' were used when describing the squid. Never a good sign.

  6. Also I forget to say: The pasta in the foto is called "Scialatielli"...tipical from Naples and is fresh....to add some knowledge to you sir.

  7. Ops, my comment before no showed.
    I went to this place two or three time to have the sardines because I am an italian from Venice and their version is the original "Sardine in Saor" my mum prepares in Venice. They are marinate in onions and sultanas cooked in vinegar. All other comments I think are unfair because is they are the writer's personal opinion....very strange to see all this haste toward this place.

  8. Lizzie - I know, it's been grim recently! Luck of the draw I suppose...

    Just Cook It - Thanks for commenting. I saw Matthew Norman's review. The place was empty when he went too - I don't think The Wine Theatre is long for this world.

    Claudio - Thanks very much for commenting. Authentic or not, the food here is woeful. And if it's unfair' to offer personal 'opinions, there's no point to criticism at all!

  9. Oliver - I did not mean comments you made but I refering to the writer critisizing things like slicing olives or adding amaretti biscuits in creme brulee...is tru personal opinion is a write but ignorance have to be put on the spot.
    Sorry if my english is limited I hope I no upset anyone

  10. What a pity you had such a bad time - when I went with the Bisol crown for a prosecco tasting, the place was packed and buzzy, and Andrew (Spitton) and I really rather enjoyed our food. We also had the calamari and olives, but they were served on the bread as bruschetta - and I'm afraid in that context slicing the olives makes sense - unless you want to chase your runaway olives all over the restaurant after they've cascaded off yuor bruschetta as you brought it up to your mouth!

    We didn't order from the menu (or even look at it, come to think of it now - but it WAS after a long day's wine tasting at the LIWF...) but the food we were served plus what we had from the free ciccheti table was good.

    Love your description of the welcome you received - so lamentably true in so many London restaurants...