In a first for my little blog, ex-blogger and friend, Hugh Wright (creator of Twelve Point Five Percent) comes out of retirement to write me a guest review.
One way or another, I have spent a substantial proportion of the past fifteen years in Vauxhall’s railway arches. Moving to the area in 2000 just as the gay scene was migrating out of central London to the then–ungentrified wilds of SW8, I discovered along with my old-uni-friends flatmates the delights of 24-hour partying.
You could, as for four or five sybaritic years we did, go out on a Friday night and not come home until Monday lunchtime, with somewhere to suit all tastes and peccadilloes from the dank, damp, deep-house all-nighters at Viaduct – now the superclub Fire – where you couldn’t officially buy booze but if you rapped on a hatch in a back wall and handed over a twenty a disembodied hand would pass you out four mystery drinks of a strength that could tranquilise a horse as surely as the ketamine that you could, conversely, buy openly at the otherwise purely-decorative bar, to the leather-, uniform- or un-clad extremes of fetish club The Hoist.
Later came soi-disant ‘Roman spa’ Chariots, a labyrinthine gay sauna in which to enjoy a Jacuzzi, a steam, an orgy and a nap in one of the cabins; Barcode – a satellite branch of a now-defunct Soho dance bar; and in more recent years the superb Above The Stag theatre, home to some of the best gay fringe in the capital. Once, when yet another club opened in a reclaimed railway arch, my friend Serious Chris quipped that “they should just knock Vauxhall through and make it into one big dancefloor.” In 2015, this feels prescient.
What the arches have never been used for, surprisingly given the apparent draw of the pink pound for canny operators, is a decent restaurant. Sure, there are a couple of passable Portuguese places but the welcome to those not native to Little Lisbon, as Vauxhall is sometimes known because of its extensive Portuguese community, can be less-than-warm to say the least, and I do not count – although I am not averse to – Nando’s. I certainly don’t count Dirty Burger; if you think that this is good food, never mind good burgers, then you are wrong.
No, to date Vauxhall’s only good restaurant has been what is in fact one of London’s best restaurants, Jackson Boxer’s exquisite, considered, flamboyant Brunswick House; now it is joined felicitously by Counter, a thoroughly jolly all-day brasserie which bores its way like a fistula from South Lambeth Place to South Lambeth Road, where its sassier sibling Back Counter, a cocktail bar, sits cheek-to-cheek with The Hoist.
A sizeable cheque has clearly been thrown at fitting the place out; seating, the majority in booths, is mushroom leather, tables marble, the cruets chrome and wood, and there’s a show-stopping curvilinear light fitting above the centrepiece island bar. Menus and cocktail lists have been designed by someone with an eye for a sexy font and the stock they’re printed on has heft. The Gays of Vauxhall like heft. Even the loos, to my chagrin so often an afterthought, are well-appointed, with Æsop hand-soap, Dyson Airblade Vs and Tom Of Finland-ish pen-and-ink drawings of chaps in chaps.
The food is modish without being fussy or fashionable, which I call A Good Thing. Of the starters, we try iridescent-skinned fillets of gin and lime-cured mackerel, their plump oiliness balanced by the crunch of almonds and cucumber, sweet pear and bitter chard, and butch pork rillettes with sourdough and pickles. Both lack a little finesse – the mackerel in seasoning, the rillettes in presentation – but they’re a sound start to the meal.
There’s no faulting our main courses. My date Lewis’s Counter burger is served medium as requested, good-quality beef in a glossy brioche bun, complemented rather than drowned out by caramelised onions, Swiss cheese and bacon jam. It comes with hot, salty skinny fries and a little bottle of house chipotle ketchup.
Said ketchup is so good I ask for some to accompany my order of hot-smoked salmon Caesar salad with a tempura soft-shell crab. This latter component retains its living shape so perfectly that I suspect a determined marine biologist could get it scuttling sideways again; I devour it, along with the delicious and adeptly-dressed salad, before we have a chance to find out.
Rather replete, we share a dessert, chocolate brownie with banana ice-cream and peanut brittle. It’s bloody lovely, as any dish combining that Holy Trinity of flavours is bound to be, and notable for the quality of the brownie which is pleasingly moist where its kind are so often claggy.
Unable to agree on white or red, we’re pleased to be able to order wine from a good selection by the glass, like the food ungreedily-priced. With a pre-dinner cocktail for me and 12.5% service 100% deserved by our polite and preternaturally pretty Lithuanian waiter Gin (“Jim?” I mishear; “No, Gin, but without tonic!” the young beauty retorts) the bill is only just north of £40 a head which feels like very fair value.
Counter will do well, of this I have no doubt; not just because ‘if you build it they will come’ – Vauxhall has been crying out for this kind of place for years and now its cries have been answered – but because it’s actually very good. As rumours gain purchase that Lambeth Council, like neighbouring Westminster, is seeking to clean up or close down some of the grimier corners of the gay scene, it’s timely that somewhere like Counter – if not exclusively aimed at The Gays then very much ready and willing to receive them – should open now.
I may not spend as much time in Vauxhall’s arches now as I once did, but you can count on it that Counter is one I’ll be found in again, and often.