En route to Arcade Food Theatre, near London’s Tottenham Court Road, for my second visit, I chunter inwardly that the restaurant scene often sounds like a chaotic blue-sky-thinking meeting gone awry. “Shout out your ideas, remember no idea is wrong!” the boss cries. “OK, it’s a cafe where you love eggs so much you’re basically a slut!” someone shouts. “We’ll call it Eggslut!” “Build it!” shouts the boss. “Forty-quid paella?!” yells someone else. “Gordon Ramsay: sushi master!?” All are greenlit for 2019.
But then one idea trumps all. “OK, it’s a food court. But a very posh, expensive one. You still queue, order, ship your own drinks and sit open-plan, but it’s £14 for a small ham sandwich. The credit card machine asks you for a tip immediately before every transaction.” Too far, one may think. But no, the Arcade Food Theatre has arrived, boasting a name like a My Bloody Valentine spin-off project and a London location so central it’s literally underneath Centrepoint, within footfall of the hungry hordes who ransack Oxford Street Primark. It should not be a difficult place to sell food. The nearby branch of Chopstix is serving boxed noodles and hot spring rolls (15 for £2.50), hand over fist, from 10am-10pm every day. Yet most things are difficult in this food court – apologies, this “collection of independent kitchens and incubation-focused mezzanine space showcasing emerging culinary concepts”.
The lineup is beyond doubt impressive, with the likes of delightful, growingly cultish bakery Pophams and Caso De Frango, who do posh piri piri chicken incredibly well in Borough. Oklava, Lina Stores and Pastorcito all have incredible pedigrees, bringing their Turkish, Italian and Mexican specialities to the mix. Arcade Food Theatre is a billion miles removed from loading a tray with Spud-U-Like and Taco Bell at Manchester Arndale Centre Food Court, or eating a streetfood burger at a picnic table under a railway arch. This place is luxuriously built and exhaustingly modern, like a “funky”, “hip” hotel one books for a European minibreak, which, within minutes, makes you weep for the dependable functionality of a Premier Inn.
The concept, as far as I see it – and it’s heavily open for debate – is that one orders food at the individual counters, and they make it from scratch, in anywhere between 10 to 30 minutes. There is seating near the counters. No signage anywhere informs the newbie where or how one should sit, pay, or collect food. There is nothing as gauche or functional as a buzzer to inform you the food is ready. There are no drinks available at many of the food stands. One is required to queue again at the cocktail bar area, where a small glass of Coca-Cola is £2.50 plus an immediate hustle for a tip.
Arcade Food Theatre does not do takeaway. In an age when Deliveroo is king and restaurants are bending over backwards to ship food out to offices and commuters in any way possible, they do not have boxes and look genuinely shocked you’d want one. “We cannot maintain the standard,” I’m told at Tou, the upstairs “incubation kitchen”, which according to the internet opens at 8am, but when I went for breakfast on a Saturday at 11am, I was told they open, maybe, at 1pm. I gave up on food that time and went straight to the bar for a pretty good bloody mary. Tou specialises in the “sando”, which is a Japanese word for “we are sticking a deep-fried breaded pork cutlet between two slices of brioche while playing Mr Wendell by Arrested Development semi-ironically – give me £14 plus tip”.
On my second jaunt to Arcade Food Theatre, I whipped through around £33 in about half an hour. London’s best almond croissant, from Pophams, costs £3.80 and a latte another £3. At Oklava, I chose a freshly baked, cheese and butter, Black Sea pide, which makes Turkish people sigh when it is compared to pizza, but alas, it’s hard to avoid. At about six inches, with egg yolk, black garlic and za’atar, it was delightful, definitely decadent and punchily priced at £12. Returning to Tou, I chose the tofu sando: chopped boiled egg laced with wasabi mayonnaise, spring onion and fresh coriander with two pockets of breaded, deep-fried silken tofu between brioche-like Japanese milk bread, for £10.50. This feisty blend is clearly someone, somewhere’s idea of a delicious sandwich, and I thoroughly respect that.
This sando has graced dozens of Instagram feeds, where diners who were given it for free at the opening parties said they had an amazing, thoroughly seamless experience at this brilliant, clever new food-hall concept and that this was the greatest sandwich ever. Frankly, I don’t believe them.
Arcade Food Theatre, 103-105 New Oxford Street, London, WC1A, 020-7519 1202. arcade-london.com. Open Mon-Sat 8am–12am, Sunday 10am-10.30pm. Prices vary by vendor.