If you could distil all the thrilling, frantic absurdities of dining out in our newly liberated city at the moment, then there’s every chance it would look something like the early throes of my first visit to the Light Bar in Shoreditch. My table lay beside the capacious restored venue, in one of those white tents now associated with vaccination centres. An unopened stack of new outdoor heaters was piled beside the door. And the dominant soundtrack – apart from Kurt Cobain, occasionally sputtering in and out of uncooperative speakers — was the deafening clatter from a building site across the road; a persistent, rhythmic clank which brought to mind early rehearsals for a bold, all-chimpanzee re-imagining of Stomp.
“I’m so sorry about that,” said our waitress, gesturing towards the scaffolding as she strained to hear my drinks order above the din. “Hopefully they will have their lunch break soon too.” I mention this, firstly, to give a sense of the unpredictable, almost comically unhelpful factors that restaurants are up against as they scramble to open.
But I also bring it up because, truthfully, my experience of this place — a loving, restaurant revamp of a storied Noughties bar that blazed a day raving trail in a former power station before closing in 2014 — was hardly diminished by the surrounding chaos. Not everything I experienced at Light Bar 2.0 was perfect. Yet it was hard to resist the nature-is-healing sensation of a post-pandemic restaurant launch where the food was surprising and effervescent, the mood was determinedly celebratory, and the ambition was as lofty as the double-height ceilings.
And, truthfully, much of this boldness flows from the menu. Conceived by Johnnie Collins (a head chef and biodynamic grower with experience at Soho House in Berlin), it has East Asian inflections, careful provenance and, for better or worse, a veritable bingo card of buzzy “modern British” mainstays.
In practice, this meant creamy sheafs of lonza charcuterie, sprightly deep-fried artichoke flowers and a hugely convincing bowl of housemade crab cappelletti with vigorously applied chilli and a brown meat sauce providing a rip tide of piquant depth. Yakitori-style skewers from the little “Robata” grill section similarly delivered. And a succulent half of roasted chicken, served with a deep, chicken-infused curry sauce, was a neat idea, skilfully rendered.
Nonetheless, the cultural magpie approach occasionally yields some fool’s gold. Amber-crumbed sweet potato croquettes seemed a little claggy and ill-conceived beside fiery jalapeño jam and the earthy funk of silken tofu. Ditto a pudding of reconstituted day-old croissant piped with a sharp, miso and rhubarb ice cream that struck us as not the best advert for zero waste. Blessedly, a beautifully intense, pointedly salted “Simon Hopkinson chocolate tart” was much more like it.
And look: I would rather have Light Bar’s freewheeling exuberance than, say, a post-pandemic culinary landscape populated with nothing but low-risk sourdough pizza joints. There is an adventurousness, craft and committed seasonality here that, especially given its location (perfectly placed to capitalise on the weekend hordes steaming in from Liverpool Street) is to be admired.
At a later visit, when I pitched up having run the frenzied Saturday night gauntlet in Shoreditch (described by my friend Joe as “like flying ant day”), the place suddenly seemed to have locked into rhythm.
Balearic house tumbled from the now functional speakers, robata skewers and espresso martinis descended on packed tables in the orange heat lamp glow and, unaccountably, an Ibizan sunset atmosphere seemed to have broken out in this nondescript roadside tent at the base of a gleaming office block. The Light, amid the gloomiest of circumstances, had flickered to life. I sincerely hope it gets the chance to hit full beam.
Meal for two plus wine around £120. Open Monday to Saturday from 12pm to 10pm, Sunday 12pm to 6pm; lightbarlondon.com