The pre-theatre scene is a vicious battleground for the dining soul of London, especially in Covent Garden. Even the mighty Hawksmoor, a monument to the inherent value of all things aged, matured and lovingly ponderous, has a pre-show prix fixe to get your rib-eye down you in a hurry. Into this crowded but lucrative market steps Four to Eight, on the corner of Catherine Street and Aldwych, which means it’s currently within spitting distance of Mamma Mia! and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The pitch is that it’s a contemporary Italian offering beautiful, simple dining in elegant surroundings.
Well those surroundings sure are elegant. We’re welcomed in warmly the moment we step through the door, rather than having to cast around awkwardly for some assistance, and seated promptly in the corner by the window. The dining space has hardwood floors below, exposed brick to the sides and a few unfinished industrial fittings above – so far, so 2014 – and the tables sit around the central bar, dominated by an imposing floor-to-ceiling wine rack. The lighting is bright enough that I don’t feel like I’ve stepped out of work into a windowless burlesque club but subtle enough that my partner and I can focus on our dishes and each other in peace.
I kick off with a beer because it’s midweek and I can, and before I can make too much of an impression on it, breadcrumbed olives stuffed with meat and cheese arrive, as if by magic. They don’t tell me what meat and I don’t ask, but I’m certain that this is the best way to eat olives. The salt, cheese and beer influence my ordering quite transparently but my partner across the table keeps her head and orders the special starter – wafer-thin citrus-drenched raw scallops with crunchy wild rice. It’s lovely, a ceviche-like refreshing kick with a savoury crunch to finish. We also try the arancini, which are fairly standard but accompanied by a sharp piquette pepper ketchup, and a burratta and tomato salad.
With the mains we look to the wine list, although half the party isn’t drinking, so it’s down to me to dip into Four to Eight’s extensive collection. Staff recommendation leads me to a 2011 Malbec from Bodegas Renacer and it’s certainly punchy, lifting me out of my beer-and-salt torpor. The restaurant is now in peak pre-theatre mode, and the chat and music are certainly growing in volume, without ever really tipping into annoyance. My companion has ordered the clam linguine, rendered simply with basil, lemon, chilli and garlic. It’s the latter which dominates, which is fine with us as we may have been French in a previous life. The sides come too – heritage tomato and shallot salad, and fries with oregano and paprika salt. Neither amaze but I like the crunchy tang of the shallots, and the oregano and paprika salt is astoundingly moreish (that wasn’t my side-order, but I ate it nonetheless).
My main is the veal escalope saltimbocca, which includes parma ham, sage and tagliata but is largely dominated by cheese – gloriously so. The veal is tender and the dish is hoovered up greedily before my companion can change her mind about vegetarianism. With the breadcrumbed olives, paprika fries and saltimbocca I’m draining beverages at an alarming clip but the ambience in the restaurant remains pleasantly relaxing, and it’s worth singling out the superbly attentive service – orders were taken and dishes were patiently explained with speed, efficiency and real warmth.
We finish with the chocolate and olive oil delice, a delightful fondant accompanied by olive oil and banana ice cream which satisfies our craving for sweet things completely, without leaving us the kind of bloated wrecks we often are, staggering away from our poor ordering choices. The whole thing is over in about an hour, more than enough time to squeeze a great meal in before a show. It’s not a place of culinary fireworks and challenging menus, but in terms of a relaxed and satisfying early-evening Italian in London’s theatreland, it’s a reasonably priced cut above the competition and will surely do well.
Four to Eight, 5 Catherine Street, London WC2B 5JZ. Website.