In Search Of Lost Time. One Hundred Years Of Solitude. Lord Of The Flies. No, this isn’t a list of books we’ve never read but own as a decorative nod to our intelligence. This is a list of novels that we never truly understood until we tried to get a table at Circolo Popolare. Ever since this loud and proud Italian trattoria opened in Fitzrovia there have been big queues, long waits, and damaged egos. That’s why, unless by some miracle - or, you know, forward planning - you have a booking, it’s important to go into a night at Circolo with a back-up plan that doesn’t involve weeping and/or emergency sustenance from Pret.
Some of these places are perfect for a quick cocktail, whilst others will cover you with pints and a pie for several hours. And they’re all spots where you should always be able to find a table. So once you’ve resisted the urge to claim you’re Taylor Swift’s cousin in the hope of getting seated quicker, give them your number and then head to one of these great spots to drink and snack until you get that glorious text. Or until you realise these places are so good that maybe you don’t need a metre long margherita after all.
As you approach this wine bar, you’ll start thinking things like, maybe I am a vagabond. One of the last real cowboys. A rolling stone with no fixed address and big bohemian dreams. None of this is true. You’re just hungry, mildly delirious, and in need of distraction. And really, there’s no better distraction than cheese, and deciding which of the hundred wines available by the glass here you’re going to try first. The concept at Vagabond is simple - you top-up a card with however much money you like, then you can walk around, check out all of the great wines they have on offer, slot your card into the machine, click a button, and the machine dispenses your wine. It might all sound a little RoboSip, but time flies here, and everything from the mushroom arancini to the Tunworth camembert is super tasty.
Your mate who has 320 Instagram followers but once won a Blue Peter Badge is barging up and down the length of Goodge Street shouting “don’t they know who I am”. Don’t judge them, the queue at Circolo brings out the worst in people. Gently herd them towards The Shochu Lounge, a pink hive of cherry blossoms and cocktails beneath Japanese restaurant Roka. There’s a wide range of Japanese whisky, upmarket cocktails, and the entire Roka menu is available down here, including their excellent gyoza.
Look, now isn’t the time to think about the fact that you just tried to bribe the person holding that clipboard with the three euros that’s been living in your tote bag since Ibiza ’09. You just need to keep moving, quickly and mindlessly, towards Rovi. This beautiful and somewhat futuristic restaurant is home to a big curved bar that is basically the cure for all of your pent-up Circolo anxiety. You’re definitely going to want to get involved in their creative cocktails that are full of things like citrus, honey, and elderflower, as well as their tempura - it’s one of our favourite bar snacks in London.
Is gateway pizza a thing? Well, it is now. When you’re patiently waiting for your chance to take on Circolo’s pun-tastic and genuinely tasty I Wanna Nduja pizza, head for casual pizza joint Homeslice. This place does pizza by the slice and has £7.50 cocktails as well as on-tap frizzante. If karma is on your side and you’ve only got a short wait until your table’s ready, it’s worth knowing that you can also grab a cheeky £2.75 half-pint. Or, if you and your group are karmically redundant like us and you’re looking at a three hour wait, you can also get involved in one of their whole 20-inch pizzas.
You thought it would be a good idea to head for a romantic date night of cocktails and sharing carbonara out of a wheel of pecorino. Instead, you’ve got a three hour wait on your hands and you’re 99% sure you just saw them eyeing up Tinder in the app store. All is salvageable. Just head to this aptly-named little wine bar on Cleveland Street. Although it’s pretty cosy, what it lacks in space, it makes up for in lots of exposed brick, candlelight, and smoked cheese croquettes. This place has a long list of wine from small producers that they update constantly, and the two owners are more than happy to talk you through your options.
It’s taken you four months, approximately 38 manipulative compliments, and one fictional promotion to get everyone to agree to dinner at Circolo Popolare. Now you’ve got a cute little two hour wait on your hands and you’re refusing to let everyone get so trashed that they miss dinner. You should wait it out at Riding House Café. This smart brasserie is pretty much perfect for any occasion, including a last-minute table, a decent coffee, and nibbling on some grilled sweet potato and burrata. In case everyone starts comparing notes on your questionable dinner-planning tactics, they’ve also got plenty of cocktails on offer.
The Newman Arms is a pub with a lot of history. It’s believed to have once been a brothel, as well as the pub that’s featured in George Orwell’s 1984. Most notably, it’s also the place where we once had a little cry whilst waiting for our table at Circolo. You enter this proper old school boozer through a little passageway and you’ll immediately see sausage rolls on the bar, pints being poured, and inevitably some plastered colleagues. This place is not only home to enough wooden panelling to make Paul Bunyan weak at the knees, but they also serve a selection of really great pies and a chorizo scotch egg we’d ghost Circolo’s burrata for.
Reverend J W Simpson is one of those cool and kooky little basement bars that has probably bore witness to hundreds, if not thousands, of promising first dates. It’s the former home of a Fitzrovia reverend, and there’s a lot of the worn wallpaper, flooring, and kitchen tiling remains in each of the rooms. That means it has a nostalgic and cosy feel that sets it apart from a lot of other bars in the area. This place also takes their cocktails very seriously, serving creative takes on the classics, and an excellent ‘drinks with benefits’ menu with drinks full of ingredients like strawberry balsamic shrubs, açai liqueurs, and other things we don’t really understand but taste great.
East Street is a bright and cheerful restaurant that’s a minute up the road from Circolo. Basically, this place and its spring rolls are your salvation when the sad lights of Holland and Barrett confuse you, and mainlining a whole bag of organic figs starts to feel like a good idea. Stop. Walk into East Street. Order the sticky wings, spring rolls, and tempura. Then eat until you feel like you’re ready for a cocktail. When it comes to groups, East Street is one of your best bets in the area - their sharing platters are tasty, there are vegan and vegetarian options aplenty, and it’s huge. That means you can pretty much always get a table for four or more.
You’re feeling angry. Your eye is twitching to the beat of Killing In The Name Of. And you’re about ten tourist elbow knocks away from losing it. Head for Coqfighter. Yes, it sounds a bit aggressive, but it’s actually a great little fried chicken spot where you can get involved in their sharing wings, some fries, and a casual margarita or two. As this place is in Soho, it’s better for those waits that are over an hour and a half, but the ten minute walk is worth it for the laid back feel and the therapeutic bonus of dousing some chicken in Korean hot sauce with a paintbrush.
When you ironically - totally ironically - read your horoscope last week, it said that you’ll face some life-altering challenges in the coming days that would both change you to your core and cause you to grow. Clearly, this two hour wait for your four-person table at Circolo was what they were talking about. As the new bold and patient you, head for the bar at Greyhound Cafe. It’s a sleek, grown-up situation with strong cocktails inside a Thai restaurant that feels very fashionable and also a bit silly. And if you’re going to have a little something to eat here, we’d recommend the rib eye satay and tataki tuna laab from the small plates section.