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Union Street Café

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Tabloid screamers inform us that 10,000 bookings were made before the restaurant even opened; and that it’s now ‘fully booked’ for dinner until the end of 2013. With this hysterical level of interest you’d expect Gordon Ramsay to be boiling your ravioli in the open kitchen, while David Beckham waits your table and hand-writes your bill. But the Beckham connection turned out to be a false, but oft-repeated rumour – he has no involvement in the restaurant – and as for Ramsay, well he wasn’t stirring risotto or even glad-handing on my visit.

Ramsay’s stretching himself thinner than carpaccio across his hectic media career and expanding business interests. But his company – Gordon Ramsay Holdings, which runs 25 restaurants from the US to Middle East – has at last got the Union Street Café off the subs’ bench and onto the pitch. This is after two years of nearly dropping the ball, and a lot of ‘will-they, won’t-they open?’ speculation.

You might wonder what the fuss is about when you enter the dining room at this middle-of-nowhere Southwark site (though the tube is mercifully close). The design’s a mish-mash of styles with bar concrete ceilings and exposed ugly wiring, but with parquet flooring and expensive leather seats. Turquoise banquettes are reflected in an battery of convex mirrors which looked more Russell Brand than Russell Sage Studios. The staff, however, are big smilers – not the we’re-paid-to-rictus-smile sort, but the the sort that comes from genuine interest and enthusiasm, as they pad around in their sneakers and casual uniforms.

Chef Davide Degiovanni has a daily-changing menu that wouldn’t look out of place in a score of other mid-market Italian restaurants in London. The intentionally casual service and Italian style is undermined though by portion sizes which would be considered meagre in the boot of Italy. Our ‘secondi’ octopus dish was two meaty tentacles perched on a pile of braised borlotti beans; a seafood stew was soup-bowl sized, and very salty. Perhaps this is one Italian restaurant where you really can order antipasti (starters), and follow it with primi (‘first’ courses, often pasta) before moving on to secondi (‘second’, or main courses).

The high points of our meal were the ‘parmesan skin’ appetisers, puffed up like pork scratchings from a rind; and a brownie-like but mild chocolate and peanut butter cake topped with vanilla ice cream, with espresso poured over, affogato style. There’s a good list of wines grouped by style, a cocktail maker renowned for his talent, and a much more extensive bar in the basement.

So is Union Street Café worth a three-month wait for a fixture? No. Back of the net? Definitely not. Good save? Only if you can get a table for lunch, or are lucky enough to score a walk-in table.

Venue name: Union Street Café
Contact:
Address: 47-51 Great Suffolk Street
London
SE1 0BS
Opening hours: Lunch served noon-3pm Mon-Fri; noon-4pm Sat, Sun. Dinner served 6-11pm daily
Transport: Tube: Southwalk

Average User Rating

3.3 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:2
  • 4 star:1
  • 3 star:2
  • 2 star:1
  • 1 star:1
LiveReviews|7
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EB
1 of 1 found helpful

I'm also local and agree with RD's comments. Regarding the location, yes it's near various landmarks but it is quite an odd location with very little footfall and not actually that easy to find. The three friends who joined me, all Londoners, had difficulties finding it. I liked the bar downstairs but the cocktail list is quite short and whilst they were well mixed, interesting combinations, they were not particularly generous and at up to £12 a go, drinks at The Shard offers more excitement for the same price. I thought the restaurant was lacking in atmosphere, poorly put together in terms of style - as per Guy Dimond's review - chairs are too corporate/slick for the industrial fittings and also oddly low for the tables. Tables are very spaced out which is quite refreshing but there is no buzz. The booking thing is a load of PR nonsense/hype - we had drinks first and were an hour late sitting down to eat, great that there was no pressure to go to our table but hardly the mark of a supposedly heavily over-subscribed restaurant and again, whilst it was full, there was nobody at the ground floor bar and I didn't notice any walk-ins. One of the front of house guys is from Balthazar and I couldn't help thinking this was a career move he would regret. Our food was fairly decent but nothing to write home about and also thought portions were small. Bread and oil was good, starters ok, spaghetti with pork cheek was excellent but other than that, nothing else was particularly memorable. The dessert menu held no appeal at all. It just generally did not feel busy - to the point, that there was the frustrating situation of there being a lot of staff around but they were so under-employed that it was hard to get their attention as they were chatting between themselves. At £80 a head, it felt like an average local restaurant with above average West End prices. I was really looking forward to this but I can't really see a reason to go back. On a plus point, it's nowhere near as bad as Ramsay's dreadful Bread Street Kitchen just over the river.

tom

Have a very different impression than Guy Daimond. Think the restaurant design/style is very smart, the food incredibly good. Have been a half-dozen times, and expect will visit every few weeks. among the best dining experiences i've had in London, and i dine out nearly every day.

jeff

Not been there but just tried booking a table for today and there are plenty of spaces. In the words of Public Enemy - "don't believe the hype"

RD

I'm a local so was really hoping this would be a great addition to the area. Sadly the food is shockingly average. Half a step above Carluccio's and that may be being generous. While quite a nice atmosphere in the restaurant & bar it certainly doesn't feel like this place has been someone's passion. It really feels like it's been painted by the numbers, like the private equity guys going over the spreadsheets are in control from the beginning. When push comes to shove, the food here is entirely forgettable. I cook better myself at a weekend. Maybe I should start a restaurant.

Carla Shupe

Well, I have not tried the food there but I am coming for a visit and you can be sure I will. As for the food it is just like a Brit to say we have no taste in our food. As Americans we say your food is quite bland and quite terrible. In fact we say the only thing safe to eat is fish and chips. As far as the interior design goes that is the industrial design in America. It is easy to see the Brit's are not into letting their hair down. I am sure there will be plenty of nationalist from other countries ready and waiting for the experience.

AC

How is Union Street in the middle of nowhere, it's five minutes walk from Waterloo station (the busiest in Britain) and you can almost see the Young and Old Vic theatres from your dinner table. No one ever describes The Shard or Borough market as in the middle of nowhere and they are a short walk. Is the writer a snob or just stupid? Everyone I know who has been says the food is nice but unassuming and reasonably priced, so go if that's what you are looking for.

Christian Anderson-Ramshall

Having read the Time Out review we were a little disappointed to note Guy Dimond's average rating before we'd even set foot in the Union Street Cafe. I do get it. Everyone hates Gordon Ramsey and he's become the restaurant equivalent of a Piñata‎; everyone loves to line up and dish out a severe beating. However, we've been living in the area for just over seven years and to see something other than pre-fabricated student accommodation or million pound lofts being erected was a cause for at least partial celebration. I also disagree with Guy when he says this is a "...middle-of-nowhere Southwark site." Far from it, it's rather the opposite with the TATE Modern less than two minutes walk away, the OXO tower, The Young and Old Vic, Baltic and The Laughing Gravy right on your doorstep. The Union Street cafe we discovered is a very welcome addition to the area. We were impressed with the overall decor and space. They're not trying to squeeze everyone onto each's tables to extricate as many covers as possible. If you want to partake in a bit of elbow bashing with your dining neighbour, then I'd suggest you eat elsewhere. Our waiter and sommelier were both excellent and knowledgeable with their recommendations, which we ended up ordering as we admitted our ignorance once we'd glanced at the menu. Yes, the courses are small for Antipasti and Primi, but that's surely the point isn't it? They do give you the option to choose between a £9 and £13 option and we're glad we opted small. The ravioli with chestnuts was sublimely cooked without being overtly heavy as was the oven baked mozzarella hugged by deliciously salty speck. The veal (I know it's not cool to admit this) was also amongst the highlights. We grazed on around six courses in all, with a decent bottle of Montelpuciano and desert wines thrown in for just over one hundred pounds for the pair of us, you can't really criticise the Union on value for money. We walked out with our bellies full and our wallets still plump and you don't get that feeling on a regular basis when dining out in London. We'll definitely be back and if there is a wait for tables here, I do believe it's worth it. However, we easily scored a lunch pre-booking this Saturday... but that's maybe because we're local.