Going to the theatre should always be primarily about the show you are going to see, but there are a lot of other contributing factors that can make or break an evening before you even take your seat – or after you leave the auditorium. It’s why the National Theatre remains my favourite London venue (of the top league, at least). The provision of decent bars and restaurants is so often an afterthought, but as the following exceptions show, when they aren’t, it can make all the difference.
The shows are generally extraordinary at the National, with such outstanding 2016 successes as Love, Hedda Gabler, The Deep Blue Sea, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Red Barn. But I always enjoy a visit – notwithstanding its car park – because the NT offers a holistic experience: theatre, food, drink, a bookshop, exhibitions. The completely revamped all-day cafe on the ground floor will feed you for less than £10 with a hot, usually tasty, main course, while the coffee shop – also on the ground floor, on the other side of the foyer – is a great non-Starbucks outlet to get coffees made to order (plus some all-too-tempting cakes). On the mezzanine level, there’s a waiter-service restaurant, which is a bit more pricey, but also good. My favourite hangout, though, is the buffet area in the Olivier, on the level between the stalls and dress circle. It’s notably less crowded than anywhere else in the building, and though the food offering is more limited, it also has my favourite server in the building – a guy who sees every show there and always talks to me about them. There are also new outlets on the river front that really come into their own in the summer months when every outdoor table is occupied. I’m looking forward to the area previously occupied by the Temporary Theatre being opened up again, so there’s even more pre-theatre and daytime outdoor space.
There probably isn’t a more popular all-day/evening theatre bar and restaurant in town than the Young Vic – from breakfast time to long after curtain down, it’s always heaving; sometimes, this is to the detriment of the theatre audience trying to get a drink before a show, as it is already packed before they even arrive. But book ahead for a table in the restaurant before the show and you’ll be all set. The summer months offer a spill-over space on the street front as well as on the upstairs outdoor terrace that makes this a go-to destination for anyone wanting to eat or drink outside. The place buzzes all day long with theatre people dropping in and out and holding informal meetings. It is the de facto London office of Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris – he even has a name plaque above a table to confirm it – and I’ll freely admit that you’ll often find me conducting interviews there, too, as it’s such a central location to meet people.
Still in Southwark, the Union Theatre always had the best (and friendliest) pop-up coffee shop and sandwich stall in town in its rickety old premises on Union Street; now that it has moved across the road to a newly converted archway, the bar, coffee shop and a full service restaurant are now indoors. Prices have gone up a bit, but you can still get wonderful sandwiches and great coffee here; and in the summer, there’s an outdoor courtyard.
Another restaurant/bar that can the victim of its own success, filling up with the Chelsea set before the theatre audience even arrives, the Royal Court’s subterranean dining area offers great food at decent prices, and an attractive bar that’s now easier to navigate than it used to be. There’s also a smaller bar upstairs, with quieter seating areas.
There’s hardly a nicer spot in London than Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre on a nice summer’s night, and the experience is always made complete by a pre-show meal at their enduringly popular buffet or barbecue stands (where they’ll serve you a freshly cooked hotdog or hamburger).
The Old Vic‘s bar – in the basement below the entrance foyer – has recently been re-dubbed the Penny, and keeps very long hours; it opens for business daily at 8am (Monday to Friday) and 10am (Saturdays), and doesn’t shut till 1am (Monday to Wednesday) or 2am (Thursday to Saturday), so it’s an ideal spot to have a post-show drink, too. Old Vic ticket holders get 20% off food and drink after the show, as an added incentive to stay on.
The West End’s old stock of Victorian and Edwardian theatres don’t always have the best bar areas, but the Grand Saloon at Drury Lane – up the grand staircase to the dress circle entry level – is one of the great public spaces of any theatre, offering a giant room to circulate in. It will be familiar to anyone who has attended The Stage Awards and New Year Party.
Another theatre with its own bespoke full-service restaurant, the Swan bar and restaurant. Shakespeare’s Globe also offers great food and drink counters around the entrance to the Yard level in the summer.
The Barbican‘s lakeside terrace area has a buffet service restaurant where you can pick up hot or cold meals, sandwiches and cakes at reasonable prices (even less if you are a Barbican card holder). There are also coffee and cake stations all around the centre. The last time I visited, though, I was dismayed to see that public areas around the stalls entrance level when we came out in the interval had the tables strewn with rubbish and spilled drinks – is no one attending to this?
Dinner theatre is an established genre in the US, but it has never really taken off here. The idea is that you eat and watch a show in the same venue (often in the same room). But the Menier is the exception that proves the rule, having made the pre-show dining experience part of the whole ritual of going to a show here. It’s not, of course, essential to eat first – you can just come to the show – but early bookers can get an meal deal that includes a two-course dinner (or lunch for matinees) at a very reasonable price. And the prix fixe menu is always themed to the show playing, which makes it fun and means the fare is constantly changing, too.