As a lifelong chocoholic, I can't think of anything more appealing than a restaurant in a chocolate factory. Just imagine: a starter of swiss rolls lightly drizzled with Nutella, followed by a deep fried Mars Bar with a side order of chocolate raisons and, finally, a double 99 to wash it all down. Throw in Willy Wonka as the maitre 'd and a dozen oompa loompas to look after the customers and you've got a sure fire winner.
Alas, Cadbury World is in Birmingham, so I had to make do with the Menier Chocolate Factory, a reclaimed industrial space not far from Southwark Bridge. Built in 1870, it was converted into a ramshackle arts centre seven years ago and now boasts a theatre, a gallery and a fairly upmarket restaurant. A little too upmarket, actually. The only chocolate thing on the menu was a cranberry brownie.
Still, once I'd got past my disappointment, I was gradually won over by the unpretentious food and friendly wait staff. I'm willing to bet that this is the only restaurant in London in which the waitress politely asks if you'd like to know what the "sausage of the day" is before she takes your order. I did, as a matter of fact. It turned out to be "wild boar and cider" and three of those sizzlers, along with a sizable dollop of mash, left me with barely enough room for the brownie. However, I'm glad I managed to shoehorn it in. I don't know whether it was the scoop of vanilla ice cream or the Menier chocolate sauce--yes, Menier really is a brand of chocolate, though it's now manufactured in Switzerland rather than Southwark--but it was one of the best puddings I've ever had.
The décor is much as you'd expect. There's plenty of exposed brickwork, a smattering of black-and-white film stills and raffia matting throughout. The only surprises are the collections of odds and sods displayed in glass cabinets that are dotted throughout the building. In the bar, for instance, there's an assortment of 19th Century brewing equipment, while in the restaurant almost an entire wall is given over to an array of antique kettles. It all adds up to an appealingly eccentric atmosphere. No fancy-schmancy interior designer has been let loose on these premises.
The main reason to visit the Menier Chocolate Factory, though, is the theatre which is quickly establishing a reputation as one of the most dynamic fringe venues in London. It's currently playing host to a dazzling one-man show called Fully Committed that's set in the basement of an ultra-fashionable New York restaurant. The central character is a moonlighting actor called Sam who has to contend with the increasingly bizarre demands of the high-profile clientele. At one point, for instance, Naomi Campbell's assistant calls to demand that all the bulbs in the restaurant be changed so the high-maintenance supermodel won't be dazzled by the harsh lighting. All these characters--and there are at least 20 of them--are brought to life with breath-taking versatility by Mark Setlock, an American actor who helped devise the play with writer Becky Mode.
Fully Committed is such a wicked send-up of the high-visibility restaurant scene it leaves you feeling quite smug about having chosen to dine in a low-key establishment like the Menier Chocolate Factory. The fictional social climbers in the play leave no stone unturned in their efforts to make last-minute reservations, including biking round envelopes stuffed with cash. No such ruses are necessary to book a table at this establishment--at least not yet. I was surprised to see a number of fairly well-known people in the restaurant, including the actress Natasha Little, the theatrical impresario Ed Snape and the Standard's very own Victor Lewis-Smith. Who knows, perhaps the white hot fictional restaurant in Fully Committed is a harbinger of things to come. I wouldn't be at all surprised.