el norte restaurant

El Norte: A Mayfair bolthole serving larger-than-life Spanish classics

12 Feb 2024 | |By Anna Solomon

This traditional restaurant is one of the most stylish ways to spend an evening in the capital, and the food isn’t half bad either

As Londoners, we sometimes get jaded and lose sight of what it means to live in one of the most dynamic cities in the world. Between paying the highest premiums in Europe for notoriously unreliable transport (for the love of God, can someone tell me why the Central Line has had delays for three-odd months?) and having to shell out half-a-million pounds for a one-and-a-half-bed with rising damp, our relationship with London becomes like that with a toxic, co-dependent partner – we should leave, but we probably never will.

For me, this feeling tends to come in waves – getting to the point of Googling one-way flights to Portugal around mid-January. But then I’ll have one of those ‘London moments’, and remember why this is the best place in the world.

I had one such moment in December, as I walked through Mayfair on my way to meet a friend at Spanish restaurant El Norte. The night was illuminated by the Christmas lights on Old Bond Street (on which no expense is spared, by the way – unlike the poor attempt in my native suburb, which makes the high street look like a runway) and, as I wandered past glittering Dolce and Gabbana, Gucci and Saint Laurent window displays, a couple of snowflakes pirouetted from the heavens. I felt like I was in a Christmas rom-com.

I arrived at El Norte – a Dover Street bolthole with emerald green awnings and a gold ‘N’ emblazoned on the door – early, and the ‘main character energy’ was preserved as I waited at the bar with a cocktail. I’m not really a cocktail person, but even my eyes widened at the selection on offer: toffee espresso martini? Yes please. Smoked bacon old fashioned? Absolutely. Pistachio mojito? 100 per cent. You could also go for a pitcher of El Norte’s homemade sangria.

The restaurant, which is owned by Spanish twins Arian and Alberto Zandi, is like something from the rose-tinted past: ambient lighting given off by chintzy, low-hanging lamps; tasselled pouffes; plush carpet underfoot. One of the Art Deco-style panelled walls is given over entirely to a display of spotlit vintage wines. It’s the kind of place in which you feel like you should be smoking a cigar. 

El Norte restaurant

While you can choose to eat in tapas style – with the menu signalling whether dishes are ‘small’ or ‘medium’ – this is not a tapas restaurant. Which is not to say that the fare on offer doesn’t reverberate with the flavours of Spain, from Cantabria to Andalucia. You get all the classics, from cherry gazpacho to Spanish omelette with manchego, and Joselito ibérico ham. The goat cheese, pistachio and honey croquettes are delicious in a way that only something breaded, deep-fried and bursting with salty-sugary fluffiness can be – while the chicken ‘bombon’ is a super-crispy lollipop of succulent shredded meat.

The ‘carnes’ (meat) and ‘pescados y mariscos’ (fish and seafood) menus are where I and the Zandi twins differ on semantics – these dishes supposedly fall into the ‘medium bites’ category, but my companion’s pull-apart red wine ox cheek and creamy vanilla mash is, if not exorbitantly-sized, then immensely filling. Ditto the chimichurri-topped slow-cooked lentils underneath my portion of perfectly charred, not-at-all-chewy grilled octopus. From the look of our fellow diners’ plates, the same goes for the glazed Iberian pork, wild monkfish, and Wagyu burger. 

The appropriately-signposted ‘big plates’ also look fantastic: giant pans of burnt orange paella, browned to perfection around the edges and topped with fat langoustines. You can also share a one-kilogram Basque ribeye or slow-roasted milk-fed lamb. For dessert, treat yourself to a Basque cheesecake or churros with chocolate.

So, there you have it. Sometimes all it takes to restore your faith in the UK is a visit to a good – er – Spanish restaurant. Viva Londres!

19-20 Dover St, W1S 4LU, visit el-norte.co.uk

Read more: The best French restaurants in London