One trite trope about restaurants is that canny waiters usher good-looking guests to the window seats — the hope being that hotties attract more custom — while shooing the uglies to tables beside the downstairs loos, presumably so that they can’t put anyone off eating. And so, ignoring the fact that it’s almost certainly nonsense, usually I like it when I’m shown to a table at the front. I tend to spend quite a lot of those meals brushing my hair back and wondering if I can suck in my nose.
Not so on Sunday night in Soho. The window was open, the curtains drawn back and outside curious types — why weren’t they in bed? Doesn’t anyone have a mother any more? — were staring in and seeing me moving a wooden dildo about the place in order to pick up my food. And every one of them caught my eye. I wanted a guide dog, a stick, Ray Charles glasses, the whole shebang. I wanted people to think this was a mistake. But here I was, at Naked, Moor Street’s newest opening. Deliberately.
On the sign on the back wall is a description that reads, in full, “Naked Sexy Restaurant”, which makes me wonder if Sacha Baron Cohen has hauled Borat out of retirement and into restaurant consultancy. It is, it says, “London’s first sex-themed restaurant”, which isn’t strictly true — Stringfellows has served food since 1980. It’s not even the first “naked” restaurant, given that about six years ago a pop-up called The Bunyadi opened, where diners were meant to take their kit off before tucking in, and every bloke who went was suddenly very wary of knocking a knife off the table. Not a place to go after an argument.
Still, Naked has its own thing going for it. It is, for instance, the only place in town I know of where the house cocktail — the meekly named Slippery Blow Job — is served as so: the waiter struts over, leopard-print shirt splayed to the naval, and instructs us to close our eyes. I am not sure I want to; I find men with mullets hard to trust. He disappears and we sit tight. There is clinking, rattling, something cold on my wrists.
“You may open them,” our man purrs, and the pair of us have been handcuffed. Now he has a policeman’s hat on, is grinning manically and slaps a frankly suggestive truncheon on the table. We are instructed to drink without using our hands, which feels like the appropriate time to mention that the shot is, in fact, a glass penis filled with Tequila Rose and topped with whipped cream. “I guess that’s the first time you’ve ever done THAT!” the waiter giggles as I gamely see it off. Well, I murmur, I did go to an all-boys boarding school.
I wonder if the owners of Naked — two Italian cousins, Stefano Vaccaro and Claudia Mangano — schooled at the same sort of place, given that they’ve lifted the artwork straight from our play book: we’d draw penises on everything. And I mean everything. It was bad enough when they were carved into our chapel benches or covered textbooks; here the walls are filled with prints of priceless art — van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night, the Mona Lisa, that sort of thing — each desecrated with dicks. You do not wonder why Munch’s man is screaming. On the other hand, The Girl with the Pearl Earring — whom I suppose you could rename, given the circumstances — looks suddenly rather more game.
The description on the back wall reads ‘Naked Sexy Restaurant’, which makes me wonder if Borat has started doing restaurant consultancy
It is, then, beyond juvenile. Deeply teenage boy (and one, you suspect, who isn’t having much luck). It is camp too, aimed to land with giddy hen-dos. And perhaps it will do well as that; if you go, don’t take it seriously, and take yourself even less seriously. It’s fun, if you’ve had enough wine — you will need wine — and just about avoids being creepy.
But sexy? Forget it. No-one could really be expected to feel any sort of stirring at the arrival of salmon tacos on a plate that leads up into a porcelain member. Could they? When our waiter — the bashful sort, my heart ached for him — hand-fed another table a phallic waffle, saying as he did so, “harder or softer?”, he cannot have been imagining he was likely to take anyone home. Naked does not seduce. On the contrary, it’s quite the cock-block.
I am to penis straws what vampires are to garlic and Superman is to kryptonite: they make me want to die quietly in a corner. Not from embarrassment, but because their banal tawdriness is so cosmically wearying that they suck the joy out of hen parties more effectively than they suck up any actual drink.
So I approach Naked Soho warily. The website suggests it is the spiritual home of such straws and other paraphernalia. The blurb encourages punters to “wild it out at your hen party or stag do with a mouth full of dick waffles”, and the menu is divided into five “courses”: A Bit of Foreplay, NSFW Tapas, Tossing Salads, The Climax and Happy Endings. I’ve died three deaths before I’ve reached the front door.
That said, I’ve also had three margaritas, which is an energy I can recommend. It didn’t make it more amusing but that’s mainly because I don’t find penises inherently funny. If I did, the sculptures, phallic plaques and graffitied prints would have me rolling on the floor. What three stiff drinks did achieve was rendering me sufficiently relaxed to recognise its two plus points: the friendly staff, who threw themselves entirely into whatever spirit Naked Soho is trying to channel; and the playlist, which my date and I agreed was the best selection of music we’d heard in a restaurant for a while.
At this point, I should say straight away: this is not a date venue unless you’re sufficiently comfortable with the person you’re seeing that you can order a drink called Nipple Clamps and a dessert called Plump Titties without spluttering. The explicit content is so literally in your face, it’s off-putting. Some of the art on the walls is bearable — vagina sculptures are sufficiently subtle — but the food looks like the chef got a junk-shaped cookie cutter for a Secret Santa and decided to make it into a restaurant concept. The Foreplay comes with willy-shaped toast. The NSFW tapas comes on willy-shaped toast. The Tossing Salads comes with willy-shaped toast, and willy-shaped waffles constitute the Eat a Dick dessert. What female genitalia there is, is on one wall, and in the form of a dish full of hummus, which makes Naked Soho far more of a celebration of the male than the female form.
If you’re claiming — as they do — that your restaurant revels in the “glories of the human body”, and “welcomes gay, straight, queer, trans, S&M fetishes and feet kinks”, you’ve surely got to invest in more than a cock-ie cutter and a couple of those giant wooden penises that you find in tourist shops abroad.
There are other issues. The lighting is bright, and while Naked Soho bills itself as a restaurant, it feels more like a bar with snack food and would be better off selling itself as such.
If you’re claiming your restaurant revels in the glories of the human body you’ve got to invest in more than a giant penis
The food is good for a teenage boys’ house party, and bad for a Soho restaurant, making it very expensive for what it is: toast, cheese, ham, salad, pasta. If this was a bar with a dance floor we’d have been dancing all night to the very danceable playlist — the sharing platters might have gone down well. Instead, they were the sort of fare you’d expect if you were an evening guest at a wedding in a Marriot in suburbia — aka not erotic at all.
Which is a shame, because food and drink can be sexy, as art and life testify. There are meals which have left me weak at the knees from an alchemic combination of lovingly created and presented food, fine company and candlelit atmosphere. There is more chemistry in the single strand of Lady and the Tramp’s spaghetti meatballs than there is in the entirety of Naked Soho; more chance of being seduced by a single, shucked oyster at the seaside — and the cost of the bill could have easily got us to Whitstable. Still, if you’re throwing a hen party and find penis straws entertaining, I am sure you’ll have a ball(s).