Mayfair – home of Oxford Street, countless embassies and the city’s fanciest hotels – is one of the last places you’d expect to find a hidden gem in London. That makes my discovery of El Pirata, a low-key and genuinely charming tapas bar that does everything properly without any need for pomp or ceremony, all the more exciting.
El Pirata sits on Down Street, an archetypal Mayfair backstreet which is home to a disused tube station. Quiet, dimly lit and flanked by the impossibly grand mansion buildings and townhouses the area is best known for, the premises feels more likely to reveal a private members’ club or exclusive tailor than a traditional Spanish tapas bar.
El Pirata hums and glows with the kind of relaxed energy that only good tapas bars can offer. Its atmosphere is one of laid-back frivolity; this is somewhere that feels comfortable in its own skin. When I visit on a Friday night, the restaurant is just the right amount of busy, with the staffing spot-on. There are a good number of waiters, none of whom look overworked or flustered, and dishes find their way to tables at a reassuring pace.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
The décor is equally reassuring. A dark wood staircase spirals down to the lower ground floor under a low cross-beamed ceiling; the walls are covered mostly with framed Picasso and Joan Miró prints. Even the dusky lighting resembles what you might find in the bars of Bilbao or Barcelona – making it easy to forget that relatively stuffy British icons like The Ritz and Claridge’s are just a short walk away.
Eating and drinking
A quick word of warning: El Pirata serves old-school Spanish tapas, so don’t come expecting snazzy small plates or clever wine pairings. This is a place to order the classics, which is exactly what I do.
First to arrive is the pulpo al pirata (sliced, fried potatoes and octopus with paprika), which is the best dish of all: it’s perfectly seasoned and ridiculously moreish. Accompanying it is black rice with squid, which delivers emphatically on flavour, despite its simplicity. Considerable care and attention have clearly gone into the preparation of the rice, which tastes deeply of the sea.
Sticking with the humble squid, the next dish I try is the calamares, which triumphs where so many calamares fail. These squid portions aren’t rubbery or greasy, but tender and crisp. Despite being tapas items, each dish is a generous size for the price – and they’re all simply delicious.
The next round of plates delivers more tapas heroes. The patatas bravas and tortilla both hit the spot, with the tortilla perfectly moist as its centre, while the carrilleras de bacalao (marinated cod cheeks) is undeniably tasty.
The only two dishes that leave something to be desired are the padron peppers and gambas al pil-pil (prawns with a garlic and chilli oil-based sauce). Those lovely little green peppers could have benefited from a little more cooking – and the prawns a little less. I had hoped for plump, sweet, tender gambas, but they arrive slightly on the chewy side.
After trying a few reds, I settle on a bottle of 2019 Rioja Riserva. It needs a little time to breathe, then fits the bill perfectly as a full-bodied, spicy accompaniment to my tapas. A mandatory search on Vivino backs up my impression that this Riserva is a very good Rioja all-rounder, but the concise wine list and helpful staff make bad decisions unlikely.
And now for dessert. Authentic tapas bars should always have at least one crema Catalana and tarta Santiago on the dessert menu, and El Pirata doesn’t disappoint. I opt for the latter, the traditional Galician almond cake, which is among the best I’ve tried. It’s impossibly moist for such a simple confection of ground nuts, eggs and citrus, and probably doesn’t need the scoop of ice cream on top. That’s not to say I’m not grateful for it.
If you’re lucky enough to call Mayfair your neighbourhood, then you have a truly fine example of an authentic Spanish tapas bar on your doorstep.
If you don’t, then El Pirata is definitely worth a trip to if you value an excellent atmosphere and simple, quality food at prices you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in such an affluent area. In a city famous for its hidden gems, this one is hiding in plain sight.
El Pirata, 5-6 Down St, London W1J 7AQ
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.