Thousands flock to London to find out if the streets are paved with gold. In the heart of London’s theatreland dwells a magical restaurant called Sarastro which epitomizes the relationship between food and beauty.
You dress up as if you were going to work in the theatre. So, its feathers fluffed, sparkles set and we were ready to discover the bohemian corner of Drury Lane.
It was around half past seven when we spotted its glowing exterior. Giggly and eager, we passed through arches of fairy lights and entered a land so very far away from anything I’d seen of London yet. The immediate atmosphere felt charged. Waiters were flurrying about setting up tables. It was early evening but there was only us three and another group inside. We explained that we were a bit early and they were very kind, so kind that they gave us a box seat. The hierarchy of seating depends on how many people you bring, the bigger the party, the better the seat.
Through the black and gold-laced curtains we could see everything. The room looked like an eastern boudoir of elegance, exotic and enticing. Ten opera boxes set up onto each wall, each one more dazzling than the last.
Festoons of food floated from a silver tray our waiter was maneuvering up the staircase. It tasted incredible. Olives, Hummus, Tzatziki, Taramasalata, Dolma, Cheese Borek, Garlic Mushrooms and Felafel. All for a starter.
The most exiting box is on the opposite wall as you walk in. It is a gold swirling bedazzlement intended for royalty. Bunk-bed style there are tables underneath the boxes and a row of penniless seats run through the restaurant. The ceiling is a maze of gold bricks and numerous lamps, beaded and stain glass, books, old instruments, dusty gold framed pictures, broken jewelry, neglected pots, bronze kettles, unfinished paintings and pieces of porcelain statues were collected on shelves.
We each tried something different; the Chicken ‘Princess’, the Duck a la orange brandy and the Salmon, served cold with champagne sauce. Each one was as close to sexy as food can get, and the courses were just the right size after the sheer banquet of a starter. The presentation wasn’t memorable or fantastic but the flavor was.
Sarastro was designed by Richard ‘Salim’ Sleeman. He created an untamed bohemian creature and embodied it into restaurant form. The space is packed with influences spanning the history and homes of opera so it feels like the place opera goes just before its curtain call.
We were waiting on our coffee to go before our desert and this intermission gave me a chance to verify rumors I’d heard about the toilets that exude seduction and bohemia. How did Sleeman imagine this place up?
As coffee arrived, so did the first act - out of nowhere
a trio of frolicking violinists appeared; they captured the life and liveliness of the restaurant in their music. I climbed down to sit on a step and ended up in a conversation with the manageress. She tells me that she runs the place with her husband and “was I enjoying myself?”, I told her that when I was seven I’d come here with my aunt and what I’d feared might’ve been a romanticized memory hadn’t done it justice. We spoke for a short while, but then she has to move out of the way of the violinists who were making their way around the penniless seats. She had to rush off and keep the magic going.
Richard Nayazi (her husband) opened Sarastro back in 1996. He let the restaurant grow its own quirky character, un-apologetic about its chipped paint and neck breaking staircases. Yes, it is crumbling a bit around the edges but this gives it charm and, if anything, makes an unpretentious environment for you to enjoy your meal.
Desert was the fruit platter. It was extravagantly arranged but a little disappointing. It didn’t have the same spirit of Sarastro that seemed to have embodied everything else - a juxtaposition of simple decadence with deliciousness on the side. The coffee, however, was fresh and full of flavor.
The violinist’s final strokes of the Can-Can faded out with the hubbub of clapping, laughing, and conversing. There was an applause to the kitchen, knives forks tinkling and scraping plates. It grew louder around ten o’clock; deeply bohemian, heavy going theatre crews had arrived and the place literally began to heat up. Opera singers were next, an affable looking man, a large woman and a cello player arrived. Their powerful voices spoke over the hullabaloo and the evening wound down with the accompaniment of forcefully delivered duets and some beautiful cello music. As I left, the tiredness that had been banished when I’d arrived, returned.
If you recognize these words and love the movie, Sarastro will love you and your trip down Drury lane will be nothing short of “Magnificent, opulent, tremendous, stupendous, gargantuan bedazzlement, a sensual ravishment. It will be spectacular, spectacular (these words are it’s vernacular) they can’t describe this great event, you’ll be done with wonderment.”