Little bills and big plates make Little Bay not to be missed

STEVEN DOWNES uncovers a hidden gem of a restaurant which combines good food with outstanding value

Quirky isn’t the word for it.

Like entering a big tent

Little Bay: “As if the flaps of a circus tent have been pulled back”

On Mondays and Wednesdays, they have opera sung to (at?) their customers. For the other evenings in the week, if the operatic quirk isn’t your schtick, diners at Little Bay have to content themselves with a meal eaten amid what could be a sumptuous set from a magical scene in a Harry Potter movie. If, as is often said, we feast with our eyes, then once you are inside Little Bay, you immediately experience a gourmet banquet.

Little Bay has been in South Croydon for 15 years, hidden away on Selsdon Road, on the corner of a busy junction. Once inside, as another reviewer has described it, “it’s as if the flaps of a circus tent have been pulled back”.

To reach our table, we were led past dozens of tree lights and flickering candles, velvet curtains in rich reds and gold and painted, carved woodwork, and directed up a set of steep wooden stairs, almost a ladder, as if we were climbing up to a bunk bed, to our carefully set table for four in a slightly snug… little bay.

One tip: try not to get too pissed over the course of the meal – at some point, you’re going to have to come back down those stairs later. High heels do not appear to be such an issue, though, judging by the party of six on a hen night in the booth next to us.

Once in our seats beneath more velvet drapes, our menus presented, you cannot help but gawp and rubber-neck at the theatrical scene all around you. Below, waiters scuttle around tables, while across the room, other groups were enjoying their evening in discreet compartments of their own.

The service is immediately attentive, friendly and helpful. The waiters’ skill in attending to the treehouse-style tables up the ladders while carrying the dishes is a minor marvel of its own.

Of course, this might all be a trick of the eye, the attention to detail in the Bohemian soft furnishings rendered almost worthless if the food is not up to standard. This is not the case, and the value offered at Little Bay is better than anything we have found locally in a very long time.

The Little Bay chain – there are similar restaurants in Farringdon and in Brighton – was started by a chef called Peter Ilic who 30 years ago dared to try to run one restaurant on a “Pay what you think it’s worth” basis. If Little Bay had done that when we visited recently, there’s a strong chance that after our two-course dinner for four, with one of our party having dessert, and with drinks and wine all-round, we would have offered to pay more than the £84 we were charged.

This was not the “fine dining” experience of another restaurant just up the road in South Croydon, but in simple empirical terms, we got twice as much for our money. Was the food at the other restaurant twice as good? Certainly not.

Little Bay exteriorLittle Bay is not a restaurant to go to if you are being careful about how much you are eating: for starters, two of our group ordered mussels, one in the traditional French moules marinieres style, one in a Spanish adaptation served with chorizo. When the deep, wide bowls were delivered to the table by the unflustered waiter, it was clear that here were a couple of dishes that would easily have been hearty mains. Utterly delicious, but too much as mere appetisers.

Our companions’ choices of avocado with prawns and butterfly prawns were much better (that is, smaller) tasters for what was to come. Fresh, crisp and leaving them wanting more.

The restaurant describes its kitchen’s output as “modern European”, which must extend to the other side of the Atlantic: they served up a couple of terrific, chunky burgers with the trimmings, while another of our group had an excellent salmon dish and the fourth diner had one of the best plates of a rich roast duck main course you will be able to find. All of these dishes were priced at less than £8 each.

Thus sated, only one of our number managed to contemplate trying something from the dessert menu. They chose Eton mess, which I thought was what this government was doing to the country… Whatever, it did not last long. If only the same could be said of this government.

The Little Bay austerity-busting offers keep coming, too: the restaurant is presently offering a three-course meal from its a la carte menu for just £9.95 – provided you book for a group of 12. You wonder how they manage to do it.

Despite its “hidden” location (and the council’s failure to serve this and other nearby businesses with much in the way of reasonable parking bays), Little Bay continues to thrive, and if you want to visit on a Friday or Saturday (when there is usually live music, though not operatic), booking is essential, especially in the run-up to Christmas. There are few other places where the magic of the season is so well captured.

Previous Inside Croydon restaurant reviews:

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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