Restaurants, rather than street food, dominate this glossy middle-class cafeteria
Arcade Food Theatre is a food court taking up the entire street-level annexe of Centre Point, the Tottenham Court Road skyscraper that everyone loves to hate. Even more unusually for a London food court, Arcade Food Theatre isn’t filled with street food traders. Its stalls are instead, with just one partial exception, outposts for already established restaurants. Given the brutal nature of the current hospitality market which has seen independent and chain restaurants alike close their doors, this seems potentially quite sensible. Sharing a roof, tables and behind-the-scenes services may well be a more sustainable route to expansion.
Centre Point’s refurbishment has attempted to transform it from a post-modernist joke into a desirable urban living destination for dilettantes who find The Shard to be too gauche. In line with that, Arcade Food Theatre’s decor is a world away from the bare concrete and upcycled fittings of most street food halls. The marble counter tops, artistic installations, plush seating and mood lighting make the place feel like a cross between a hotel lobby and one of the better Vegas hotel buffets. It’s like a Westfield food court, but designed for people with passports and credit cards (payment is by card only at all the stands here).
A food court, filled with mini-restaurants or otherwise, sounds like a daring experiment for Centre Point. It could easily have otherwise been filled with more dreary chains or yawn-inducing Coal Drop Yard-style boutiques. The latter would’ve been especially pointless, as the 1% would only venture this far down Oxford Street for a tax avoidance scheme.
The array of restaurants, while small at just six stands, is still remarkable. Lina Stores, Oklava and El Pastor are the most recognisable restaurants, all offering shorter and greatest hits versions of their menus. Having eaten at every one of Arcade Food Theatre’s stands on multiple occasions, what follows is a comprehensive guide to one of London’s most distinctively intriguing food courts.
Table of Contents
Tou from Tata Eatery
Tou stands apart from the other stands at Arcade Food Theatre both literally and figuratively. It not only occupies a mezzanine overlooking all the other stalls, it’s also the only one from a restaurant – Tata Eatery – that has now closed and is currently conducting residencies. Tou is also the most overhyped of all the stands here due to just one dish – its pork katsu sando.
The fact that pork tonkatsu sandwiches have become one of the most Instagrammed foods in London over the past year would probably surprise most Japanese for whom it’s usually nothing more than a convienience store lunchtime staple.
The folks behind Tou/Tata would probably emphasise the non-Japanese influences in their sando, but comparisons are inevitable. Their use of iberico pork is perhaps the most distinctive part of this sandwich due to its exquisite tenderness, light sweetness and, depending on the cut, a small but slick seam of fatty unctousness. While the crumbed batter encasing the pork was consistently crisp then soft, it never matched the remarkably even crispness and feathery softness of the very best Tokyo tonkatsu. While crisp and moreish, the toasted bread was often at risk of disintegration from the moisture of the lightly sweet berry-based sauce and possibly some run-off oil from the battered pork. It’s a pleasurable little snack, but a flawed one and hardly the best dish you’ll find at Arcade Food Theatre.
The vegetarian version of Tou’s signature sandwich sees soft, milky tofu take the pork’s place. Encased in the same crumbed batter, it was slathered in a lightly piquant and herby tartar-ish sauce dotted with minced egg. This did mean the toasted bread was even more prone to falling apart than in the pork version, though. Even so, this was still a remarkably satisfying vegetarian snack/starter.
Tou’s rotating special during my spate of visits was rice topped with thinly sliced iberico pork and an egg yolk. A pork donburi, if you will. The lightly sweet and woody pork had its richness enhanced by the runny yolk and, surprisingly, the spoon-sized helping of tabasco on the side. The rice was unexpectedly respectable, especially given the wretched quality of the rice at so many of London’s street food stalls in general. The small grains were even in their sticky soft fluffiness on multiple occasions. You’ll struggle to find a similarly well-executed bowl of protein and carbs at this price in this part of town.
Given the relative richness of Tou’s meat-and-carb creations, it’s worth having the pickles afterwards as a palate cleanser. Not for the gherkins, which were too subtle in their tartness for their own good. The star attraction here were the slices of pickled shiitake which were remarkable in their smooth, slippery tautness and genteel earthiness.
It’s a shame that Tou’s katsu sandos have been so overhyped. They’re perfectly enjoyable savoury creations, but if you’re travelling across town to have one then you’re setting yourself up for either Insta-fuelled placebo FOMOjoyment or hashtag-ridden disappointment. But if you’re in this part of town, then they’re well worth having as an appetiser for one of the even better dishes available at this food court.
Average cost per main dish: £14
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Casa do Frango
The original Casa do Frango near London Bridge is basically a middle-class Nando’s, serving up rotisserie chicken with peri peri sauce. The same basic formula is repeated here with half a spatchcocked chicken grilled with your choice of glaze.
The default piri piri glaze was milder than a glass of milk, so it’d be wise to opt for the supplimentary piri piri sauce on the side which packed a mild amount of heat. The poultry itself otherwise tasted of little, so its main attractions were the taut slipperiness of its skin and the succulence of the alabaster meat underneath.
Neither of the sides I had were especially impresssive. Although hefty in size, the cauliflower was a tad too soft, but it did have the benefit of a creamy, somewhat zesty sauce. This made it preferable to the floppy, bitty fries.
While waiting for your chicken to arrive, you can snack on the crimson-hued chunks of chorizo. Although it won’t set the world of cured meats alive, its lean meatiness made for a pleasant enough distraction.
Casa do Frango’s brought-in pastel de nata tarts were surprisingly respectable. The flaky pastry and gently creamy, eggy filling avoided the chewy blandness that afflicts many versions of this Portuguese classic on our shores. Don’t bother with the tame dusting of cinnamon though.
It takes a lot for chicken to impress me given that it’s often the least interesting of all the meats. While Casa do Frango’s chicken, as well as its other dishes, didn’t bowl me over, they did have their charms. If you need a competently executed option for the child or invalid in your group, or if the other stands are backed up or sold out, then Casa do Frango will do the trick.
Average cost per main dish: £10
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Chotto is an offshoot of Chotto Matte, Soho’s perennially popular restaurant serving Japanese-Peruvian cuisine. I’ve put off going to Chotto Matte for years as I’ve always been doubtful about their ability to avoid a culinary car crash. After all, given that far too many London kitchens are incapable of creating traditional Japanese dishes that are worth eating, Japanese-Peruvian hybrid cuisine created by the Nikkei diaspora would seem far beyond their reach.
Chotto’s abbreviated menu wasn’t the atrocity-strewn warzone that I had feared, but it’s clear the kitchen struggles when attempting dishes that hew more closely to Japanese tradition. The gyoza had barely edible dumpling skins, due to their resemblance to cardboard and paper. Although the filling barely had any of the advertised pork and prawn, I actually didn’t mind as the sweet, gently spiced, mildly starchy and fluffy cassava hardly needed their help. Its yam-like charms were unexpectedly reminiscent of Cantonese dim sum wu gok. It’s just a shame the skins were so inedibly dire.
The firm turbot was the most successful of the six-piece nigiri sushi, with the rest drowned out by their ill-chosen selection of glazes. From fruity to earthy and truffle-laden, almost all of them teabagged the various fish-and-rice combinations into soulless anonymity. The four-piece aburi was only marginally more successful, with miso-slicked aubergine and a repeat appearance from turbot once again saving the plate from being a total loss. Glazed sushi can be a rewarding experience. Just not at Chotto.
Tempura uramaki struggled due to the meagre, tepid prawns used, although the crunchily moreish batter and the sweet rice helped rescue this dish from oblivion. Even then, a new flaw presented itself – the rice was just a bit too hard. One step forwards, two steps backwards.
Spicy tuna uramaki were in no way spicy given the tepid heat of the spiced mayo. There was some warmth from the wasabi, but more joy was to be found from the soft rice and the chewily meaty if otherwise somewhat anonymous tuna.
Chotto had a somewhat higher rate of success when it more fully embraced the Peruvian side of Peruvian-Japanese cuisine. Meaty slices of sea bass in the ceviche were made whole by the citrusy zest of the silky sauce and the crisp garnishes.
Similarly, the meaty, tender slices of sashimi would’ve been only half as enjoyable without the zesty, mildly spicy glaze. Combined with hints of earthiness from the crisped truffles, this dish was full of unexpected nuance.
A tender, sinewy hunk of beef glistened seductively underneath the moody spot lighting. While succulently sticky, it wasn’t as rich or as umami as I was expecting given the dappled appearance of the bark. While this beef was no gyudon, it was still winsome – especially when taken with the sweet starchiness of the creamy purple potato puree. It may be a gussied up beef-and-mash, but it was a respectably different and enjoyable gussied up beef-and-mash.
Tostaditas had the benefit of wafer-thin, crunchy, moreishly toasted tortillas. The toppings were thoroughly unconvincing though. The almost non-existent eryngi on the mushroom tostadita meant the crisp garnishes and sprightly sauces had to do all the heavy lifting. The salmon-topped variant had the benefit of pleasingly meaty and chewy strips of fish, but they tasted of surprisingly little as did the garnishes.
Chocolate mousse was suitably creamy, but it tasted of little. This bland state of affairs wasn’t helped by an equally ineffectual seam of dulche de leche and dusting of matcha.
Eating at Chotto can be a deeply uneven and unsatisfying experience, unless you veer away from the more stereotypically Japanese-style dishes. Even then, the results were decidedly mixed. There are several cuisines in London that need better representation to champion their image; Japanese-Peruvian cuisine is surely one of them.
Average cost per main dish: £10-12
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Flat Iron Workshop
Flat Iron Workshop’s name suggests there’s an experimental nature to this branch of the popular budget steak minichain. Perhaps that will manifest itself in future, but for now the steak of the day special sticks to tried and tested staples such as bavette. Gently sweet and nutty beef came with a moreishly browned crust, all generously salted and drizzled with olive oil.
The eponymous shoulder cut came as a small portion nestled amidst some crisp battered onions, lettuce and mustard with the whole lot served in a mammoth Yorkshire pudding. Although some will take umbrage with the small amount of beef, the more pressing problem was its surprising lack of character. It was, as expected, very tender though. Along with the gentle heat of the mustard and the mild chewiness of the soft pudding, this tenderness helped make up for the flat iron steak’s failings.
Thin, weedy string fries were made bearable by the earthy, musky sweetness of the cep peppercorn cream. Either the latter should really come as standard, rather than as an optional extra, or the kitchen should invest in better frites.
Flat Iron Workshop’s chocolate mousse was noticeably better than Chotto’s version. Its gently bittersweet charms were enhanced by a touch of sweet sourness from a squirt of cherry juice and slices of extant cherry. Its relative richness needed something more refreshing that just a wee blob of double cream though
Flat Iron Workshop isn’t as masterful as its restaurant counterparts, but its meaty delights are still worth savouring whether you compare it to its restaurant siblings or to its generally less accomplished street food steak competitors.
Average cost per main dish: £8-12
Star rating: ★★★★☆
For a delicatessen and grocers that had been content with just one location in Soho for 80 years, Lina Stores is now expanding at a rate of knots. Its superb Soho restaurant has been joined by its outlet here, with a Kings Cross site to follow.
If you’re a carnivore and don’t order the Parma prosciutto, then you’re missing out on a sensational experience. The thick rosy drapes of fatty rich umami are worth killing for.
Vegetarians and vegans haven’t been shortchanged- the aubergine polpette is not only a worthy alternative starter to the Parma prosciutto, but a delight in its own right. The soft, fine-grained and oil-free breadcrumb shells contained an aubergine puree of enviable quality. Smooth yet fleshy, with its distinctive taste of eggplant tinted with basil. If only all polpette were this scoff worthy.
Lina Stores’ compact pasta selection was a game of two halves. The pici was skin-tinglingly delightful. The rounded-edge string pasta was yieldingly soft, accompanied by bittersweet sausage meat and topped with earthy, umami parmesan. Deceptively simply, utterly beguiling.
Firm pasta envelopes came stuffed with cream cheese, but the real highlight on this plate were the umami tomatoes and punchy pine nuts smothered all over the filled pasta.
Taglioni was surprisingly ramen-like, with their thin, wrinkly and moreish qualities. The dusting of parmesan, butter, pepper and truffles was surprisingly muted though, making this cacio and pepe placeholder far less satisfying than it could’ve been.
Pappardelle was suitably thick and wide, but not firm enough. The cheese was unexpectedly underwhelming, leaving it to the chunky veal ragu to pick up the slack with its gentle sweetness and yieldingly firm mouthfeel.
Canolo, this stand’s only dessert, was a little more unbalanced than the versions I had at the nearby Soho restaurant. The pastry was a touch too stodgy and greasy, but the filling of whipped ricotta and icing sugar was not only sweet but etherally fluffy too. The bittersweet chocolate chips at one end hit the spot, but the crushed pistachio at the other was only reasonably evocative of the nut. Despite these flaws, Lina Stores’ canolo is still the hands-down favourite of all the desserts available at Arcade Food Theatre.
Lina Stores’ concession at Arcade Food Theatre isn’t as rousing a success as its Soho restaurant. But even in this second best form, it’s still a damn sight better than any of the dreary high street Italian chains where most people get their pasta fix from.
Average cost per dish: £7-10
Star rating: ★★★★☆
It’s telling that the masterminds behind Oklava’s stand at Arcade Food Theatre went with the brand name of their original Shoreditch restaurant, rather than the Kyseri branding of their nearby restaurant in Fitzrovia. As much as I would’ve loved to huff Kyseri’s beef dumplings without having to swat aside Fitzrovia’s media luvvies for a table, an Oklava pide is probably a better fit for this street food-esque setting.
I’m certainly not complaining, given the toe-curling, spine-tingling ecstasy of the Black Sea pide. The chewy crust was the opening act for a thin and supple pizza-like base topped with rich and runny egg, creamy butter and salty, fatty cheese. Topping bread with cheese, egg and butter may sound like cheating, but I definitely don’t mind – especially when it’s done this well and then generously seasoned with oregano-dominated za’tar. The layered depth and decadent richness of this dish earns it a place on my last meal when I inevitably end up on Death Row.
I wasn’t as taken with Oklava’s version of an Iskender kebab. Then again, I’ve never been convinced by the conventional wisdom that the Iskender kebab is the top dog of the Turkish pantheon. The bed of sliced flatbread had soaked up some of the umami of the tomato sauce, but neither it nor what remained of the sauce were especially moreish. The slithers of doner meat were somewhat dense and chewy, but a bit of char and fat would’ve gone a long way. Given the somewhat tame meat-carb combo, the dollop of refreshing yoghurt was hardly needed. A shrug-inducing kebab.
Although thin and floppy, the chips were indeed formed of whole slices of fluffy potato and shone with a golden brown hue. Even so, this plate of chips would have been far less enjoyable without the generous dusting of salt and the zesty, tangy sauce.
There’s only one other dish on this Oklava’s menu that rivals the superlative pide for my affections. The kunefe is the sole dessert, but it was a knock-out that ambushed my sense. The chewy then delicately soft patty of noodle-like pastry had a centre baptised with a syrup that was far more than just sweet. It was honey-like in its floral sweetness, but reminiscent of tea in its tannic richness. This deep well of rich flavours was the perfect accompaniment to the pastry, far more so than dusting of ineffectual pistachios and the unnecessary but light and milky cream.
Oklava’s kunefe was almost identical on a subsequent visit, but with a critical difference – the syrup at the centre of the pastry wasn’t anywhere as complex, with more a far more generic sweetness. It still meshed with the pastry to delicious effect, but it wasn’t quite as wondrously impressive as it had once been.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that Oklava is one of the best stands at Arcade Food Theatre given the accomplished cooking at both its parent restaurants. If you visit this Tottenham Court Road food court and don’t eat something from Oklava, then you’re truly missing out.
Average cost per dish: £10-12
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Pastorcito is the taco and gringas-only little sibling of the El Pastor and Casa Pastor restaurants. Despite having only just opened, another branch of Pastrocito is due to emerge at Southwark’s Mercato Metropolitano, taking the place of the more prosaically-named Super Gringas and Guacamole.
Despite this seemingly sudden blossoming, the dishes at the Centre Point Pastorcito were decidedly mixed. The (allegedly) corn flour tortillas used in all the tacos were sturdy little creations, which is just as well as they were somewhat leathery and overstuffed with fillings.
The flagship al pastor tacos paired jerky-like pork bits, all tinged with a fruity sweet and sour taste, with suitably sprightly, zesty salsa. Although still not quite as good as the versions that graced El Pastor’s tables when it first opened, this was still a splendid version of this Mexican classic.
The chunks of battered fish in Pastorcito’s Baja fish tacos were a tad oily, but reasonably crisp and meaty all the same. The fish needed an accompaniment besides the tart onions though. The free optional sauces of varying spicy warmth were very much needed on these somewhat bland tacos.
Unless Oaxacan cheese and peas have taken on the form of a sour and crisp celeriac-like vegetable, there was precious little of either to be found in these vegetarian tacos. The crisp celeriac and sweet corn were bound together by a sprightly, spicy salsa. It all made for a fine meat-free taco in its own right, but my panting lust for some delightful Oaxacan queso went unquenched.
The only other tacos to match the al pastor for sensual pleasure were the ones filled with beef short rib. The earthy, musky sinews of neatly tenderised rib meat were a sumptous delight. So much so that they really needed more of the sharp and tart pickled onions to balance out their meaty richness.
The Super Gringas weren’t the quesadilla-like stuffed and folded tortillas that I was expecting, but more of a bulging rice-less burrito. Although the wheat flour tortilla came packed with al pastor pork, its presence was nullified by the deluge of zestily creamy guacamole. It wasn’t a total loss as the sheer weight of pork meant there was a little more variation in texture compared to the pork inside the al pastor tacos. More succulent, occasionally fatty flecks were present in addition to the jerky-like cuts also present in the tacos. There’s the core of a good wrap here, it just needs a little more refinement.
Pastorcito, like its restaurant forebears, has its charms although it won’t be dethroning Santo Remedio from its throne as London’s best Mexican eatery anytime soon. It poses more of a threat to the nearby branches of the fast-casual Mexicanish chains though, from Benito’s Hat to Wahaca and DF / Mexico, as well as the more respectable Mestizo. Despite its flaws, I’d rather take my chances at Pastorcito than at any of the chains.
Average cost per dish: £9-11
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Arcade Food Theatre may be a smallish food court, but it gets a lot of things right. Instead of trying to cover as broad a range of dishes and cuisines as possible, they’ve roped in a small selection of seasoned operators generally capable of producing high-quality dishes. The glossy decor is backed up with plenty of seating – from counters to large tables, there’s space whether you’re a lone diner or part of a sprawling brood. Refuse is cleared away efficiently, the bogs were sparklingly clean and the doormen didn’t try to officiously confiscate bottles of water.
All this comes can be had at reasonable prices. You can stuff your face well at the better stalls, such as Oklava and Lina Stores, for around £20-25 (excluding booze) per person. Prices rise up to around £35-40 at a few stands such as Chotto. In a city where eateries in shiny glass-and-steel developments seem to be priced for the well-heeled residents living in the overpriced flats directly above, this is an encouraging development. It remains to be seen whether this, along with their stated aim of encouraging the various stalls to experiment with new dishes, will be sustainable. I sincerely hope so. In spite of their curious lack of clear street-level signage and ineffectively naff marketing, Arcade Food Theatre could well be a template for a higher-quality, more sustainable way of eating out that isn’t as prone to the boom-and-bust cycle of London’s fickle restaurant market. One can only hope.