Welcome to Mayfair, a rather exclusive part of London town. The area gets its name from the 15-day fair that James II established there in the 1680s, which was mainly for cattle trading. The gentrification of the area in the mid-18th century killed off the festival, which led to local architect and developer Edward Shepherd being commissioned to develop the site where the market had been held. He designed paved alleys, a duck pond and a two-storey market topped with a theatre. Shepherd’s Market was born.
Shepherd’s Market is made up of a number of small side streets with shops, restaurants and pubs. It’s right in the middle of the hubub of Piccadilly and Mayfair, yet something of an oasis of calm, despite the social activity. As you walk through the little alleyway off Curzon Street, the atmosphere seems to change. We started our evening at Ye Grapes, one of two pubs in the little square. Built in 1882, when Shepherd’s Market was notorious for prostitution, it’s now the height of respectability with business people and tourists sharing the small outside space on a warm summer evening.
On the way to our dinner destination, El Pirata, we passed another of the famous pubs in the area, The Shepherd’s Arms, festooned with hanging baskets and pots. I couldn’t resist stopping to take a picture. There’s no holding back on the flowers in London’s summertime.
El Pirata is a classic Spanish restaurant that’s turning 20 next month (September). It’s a charming, welcoming sort of place that you feel has discreetly fed plenty of famous people through those two decades. I read that Johnny Depp is a fan and so is Brian May. Well, if it’s good enough for them…
We managed to nab an outside table…gotta eat alfresco if the weather allows in London. The awning has made some rather interesting shadows on my photographs, I apologise for that, but I’m sure you can still get a great idea of the delicious tapas we tucked into. And boy did we have a feast!
This dish was called huevos rotos, which translated as broken fried eggs with potatoes, Serrano ham and prawns. Seldom have I tasted such a perfect combination. Crispy potatoes, flavoursome runny egg, salty chorizo and sweet prawns. Yum, I could eat it every day.
I’ve always shied away from ordering anything with black squid ink. Don’t know why really, I’m an adventurous eater. Neil insisted we had to try this dish and I was amazed to find that it is totally, totally delicious. Calamares con arroz negro (or calamari with black rice), it’s lightly fishy with beautifully silky rice and small pieces of tender calamari. To think I nearly missed out on ever tasting it. Certainly has a tendency to make your mouth go rather black, which isn’t the most attractive of looks. But a quick trip to the bathroom soon sorts that out.
Lamb chops are also a Spanish classic – and they sound way more exotic in Spanish, too – chutelitas de cordera. These were perfectly cooked and packed with flavour.
Yikes! Did we really eat all that? Actually, I’ll fess up…I haven’t even put all the pictures on. We really indulged! The food is fabulous and the extensive wine list offers a cornucopia of Spanish gems to complete a perfect Spanish night out in Mayfair. Bet Edward Shepherd couldn’t have predicted that!
Thanks to our friends Neil and Jakki for introducing us to their favourite Spanish in town. And thanks to Fernando for making us feel so welcome. We loved El Pirata.
Oh, and if you go back in September this year (2014) you can have a meal at 1994 prices. Think it has to be done.
El Pirata is at 5-6 Down Street, Mayfair.