I've never been a huge fan of Tapas. What is it, exactly? The Spanish equivalent of fast food? I've never known how many dishes you're supposed to have, either. Does the Martini rule apply? Is two never enough, but three too many? On the face of it, it just seems like an excuse for bumping up the price of a meal: take an ordinary plate of Spanish food, separate out the ingredients, stick each of them in a terracotta ash tray, then charge more for them individually than you would collectively.
At least, that was my opinion until I paid a visit to Meson don Felipe last week. Situated opposite the Young Vic on the Cut, this must rank as the liveliest tapas bar in London. It's so crowded, I could barely open the door and when I finally did the blast of noise that hit me almost knocked me off my feet. It reminded me of the bar of my old Oxford college and, indeed, that's not a ludicrous comparison since Meson don Felipe was clearly a public house once upon a time. (Question: What's the Spanish term for "gastro pub"? Answer: Tapas bar.)
There were lots of couples sitting together, along with larger, single-sex groups, but a quick glance at the menu revealed that this is no date restaurant. Roughly 50% of the dishes contain garlic and there's a little note at the bottom advising you how to eat "pan con tomate": "Rub the garlic on the toast, then the cut side of the tomato, dribble oil on top--add salt...and enjoy." Well, you might enjoy it, but your date certainly won't. On the other hand, you're unlikely to be bitten by a vampire on the way home.
The décor is...well, very Spanish. The walls and ceilings are painted fire-engine red-- so don't come here if you've got a hangover--with the only additions being brightly-painted plates and prints of various figures in national costume. There is even a flamenco guitarist perched on a platform beside the emergency exit to add to the convivial atmosphere. What with his frenzied strumming, and all the people shouting to make themselves heard, it's louder in Meson don Felipe than it is at a bull fight. And we're talking the Plaza de Toros in Madrid.
Given how rough-and-ready this place is, the food was surprisingly good. I don't think it would be right to describe one thing as a starter and another as a main course, since they all came at once, but I wasn't complaining. I began with a mouthful of deep fried cod, liberally covered in garlic mayonnaise, followed up with a hot prawn in garlic-and-chilli oil, then popped a tuna fish croquette in my mouth. It was the sort of food my old cat, Sleepy, would have leapt off the top of Canary Wharf to get to. It wasn't a gourmet feast by any stretch of the imagination, but at £16.45 it wasn't bad value.
If I made one crucial mistake it was going to Meson don Felipe on my own. I'd been to see a play at the National Theatre beforehand and when I came out there was a message on my mobile from the person I was supposed to be having dinner with telling me his bicycle had been stolen and he was stuck in Dalston. When it comes to Tapas, the solution to the Martini problem is to share five dishes between two people and ploughing my way through the above three dishes by myself became slightly monotonous after a while.
All in all, though, this restaurant gets a big "Ollé" from me. If I'd been to the Young Vic with an old mate and was looking for somewhere cheap and cheerful to have dinner, I can't imagine going anywhere else. Even if I was on my own I might come here again. Eating by yourself is usually a pretty depressing experience, but I emerged into the bleak, windswept streets of South London with a big smile on my face.