The location shouts exclusivity, but the approach at El Pirata’s more democratic and less starchy than you might expect – a mix of Mayfair attentiveness and Mediterranean mi-casa-tu-casa kick off your sandals warmth. We arrive early on a weekday evening, when the weather in London hasn’t realised it’s May yet. But on the outside tables people are wrapped in shawls, and clinking enormous sangria glasses. Inside’s similar, minus the shawls – smallish, friendly, already bustling and getting more so during the night.
So the atmosphere’s surprisingly laid-back, and ditto the prices: though it’d be entirely possible to rack up a steep bill if you went at dinnertime and ordered from the more lavish ends of the wine menu and specials options, there are paths through El Pirata that don’t demand an expense account. At lunchtime a set menu offers two tapas dishes from a decent range, bread with aioli and a glass of wine or beer for £10.25 a head – a comedy double-take level of good value for a postcode where a starter alone might often push that pricepoint.
We’re here for dinner, though, and end up with a lot more on both the tapas and wine front than you could fit into a lunchtime. Not that we need a lot more – it’s just a momentum thing. If you start with hot, salt-studded padron peppers and thick, acorny slices of jamon iberico pata negra just to see you through the menu-reading stage, empty plates are going to be stacked high on all sides by the time you finish the evening.
Some of the stars of those empty plates: the croquetas. They arrive as a dish of three golden, deep-fried balls, and sit there leaking cheese at us brazenly: the first sign of how far overboard the rest of our ordering might be, if even the El Pirata take on a bar snack is this substantial, meaty and cheese-rich. The chicken and chorizo skewers and prawns drenched in garlic are a relief, sort of, being proof there’s enough nuance to the El Pirata menu to keep everything we order just under – just – the upper limit of how much richness you want from it.
Stand-out by a long shot’s the calamares con arroz negro, a dish of squid and black rice, the stickiness nearer to the gloop of risotto than a paella, and the squid soft and as near to falling-apart as squid can ever get. It turns our lips and tongue promptly – and lastingly – black, in a way our waiter announces with cheerful ominousness ‘will be worse later’. Worth it.
We leave at a civilised time – Dan has a toddler and I’ve got season 2 of Parks & Recreation, both crucial life commitments – and after a civilised amount of wine. But I’ve got the impression there’s a mild, latent rowdiness at the heart of El Pirata, that it’d get loud later in a jovial, wealthy family gathering, somebody’s father slapping everybody on the back and endlessly topping up the port sort of way. More fun and more laid-back than you knew Mayfair could get on board with.
El Pirata, 6, Down Street, W1J 7AQ. 0207 4913810. Website.