“Crabshack” evokes images of rickety seaside restaurants held together by Sellotape and folksy charm; mom-and-pop joints that only make $7 a day but put a big smile on everyone’s face.
Big Easy, a new place just off the Strand near Covent Garden, calls itself a crabshack. It says so in massive letters outside. But, despite having pallets hanging from the ceiling and wooden boards nailed to the walls, you’d have to have a particularly vivid imagination see a crabshack here. It’s the kind of cavernous venue you could imagine Carl Cox playing in the 1990s. It’s held together with bricks, steel and a firm business plan – one that seems to be working, given this is Big Easy’s second iteration, the first being on the King’s Road.
When I checked it out online the website started playing the kind of music that makes your colleagues look at you disapprovingly, which may be the 21st century’s equivalent of the laminated menu.
The last time I ventured to Covent Garden for food – a path strewn with shattered dreams, tourists and, if you’re there at the weekend, lots of piles of sick – I ended up in another American-style place called Joe’s Southern Kitchen, which wasn’t very good at all. And, honestly, I wasn’t expecting much more from Big Easy, especially as I wasn’t drinking, which makes eating out, and life in general, about 400 times less fun.
But you know what? Big Easy is alright. It’s not the kind of place you’d tell your foodie friends about (you’d lie and say you went to Polpetto instead), but if you want to consume large quantities of things that were very recently alive, you could do much worse.
The crowd is mercifully less touristy than the location would suggest, with a high after-work contingent and literally nobody over the age of 35. The waiters are under strict instruction to spark up conversation, even though I arrived alone, late on a Monday evening and it was pretty obvious neither of our hearts were in it.
Small talk aside, the sharing platter of chilled lobster, crabs claws and jumbo prawns we had to start was great, and gigantic. Every restaurant without a star chef should serve fresh crab or lobster – they taste good and are hard to mess up. Not impossible, mind: the day before I ate at Big Easy I was unfortunate enough to stumble upon a place called Chennai Dosa in East Ham (I had an errand to run there and it had been a long day and I was hungry enough to eat… well, in East Ham). I should have known better, or consulted Twitter, or at least avoided ordering crab. The creature that arrived on my plate was all legs and appeared to have been left to slowly drown in orange oil. Truly horrific.
But I digress. Big Easy says its Covent Garden restaurant houses 2,000 lobsters, some of them weighing 6lb, which is pretty hefty (a Wikipedia search tells me the largest lobster caught in Nova Scotia weighed 44.4lb, which is the stuff of nightmares and probably a herald of the end of all things. And while we’re on lobsters, here’s another fact: they’re one of the few immortal creatures – without some external calamity, they could go on happily scuttling the ocean floor ad infinitum. Mull that over next time you order one).
My fillet steak, served, of course, with another half lobster (it’s endless life cut sadly short) was very nice, too – not in the same league as MASH or Hawksmoor but you wouldn’t expect it to be. El Pye went for essentially the same dish we had to start but this time grilled and coated in garlic sauce. The only real letdowns were the sides – a bowl of flaccid “wild” mushrooms that appeared to have been extracted from a can, and some bad-tempered looking creamed spinach.
So, all good then? Well, it came to £150, and that’s a lot when you bear in mind I wasn’t drinking (El Pye had a couple of glasses of wine but nothing particularly extravagant). You could get a good feed in some serious restaurants for that.
But nobody ever said lobster was cheap, and at least you’ve had someone vouch for the quality at Big Easy – I wish I’d had such sterling advice before I tried my luck in East Ham.
First published in City A.M.