Caviar, Canals, and a Scene from Goodfellas: Caravel Will Float Your Boat
It’s a simple starter, which is exactly why it works so well. A crunchy slip of potato rösti, a dollop of sour cream and a spoonful of Exmoor caviar. Gone in a bite, remembered for a lot longer. Caravel’s caviar was named the best starter in London by the Evening Standard, who called it a “a gift from the gods.” After trying it, we’re not going to argue with them.
“A bit bougie, but it works!” says Lorcan Spiteri, the chef behind the dish who, along with his brother, Fin, opened Caravel in the spring, turning an old barge moored along the Regent’s Canal in Hoxton into a floating restaurant, named after a kind of light sailing ship used by the Portuguese back in the 15th century. “We were googling boat terms. Anything to do with a boat,” says Fin, “and that was the only one we came to that didn’t sound rubbish.”
The older of the two, Fin, runs front of house. He has previously worked at Rochelle Canteen at the ICA, and at Soho’s legendary Quo Vadis — inventor of a certain famous eel sandwich. Lorcan, in the kitchen, also started out at Quo Vadis, working his way up to sous chef, before moving to the Italian bistro Oldroyd in Islington, and then onto his own food stall in Soho and beyond. In 2020 they took on a space at Holborn Studios — where Newton, Leibovitz and Bailey have worked — called Studio Kitchen. “It was a chance for us to do our own thing,” says Fin. “There were a few picnic tables and nothing else. We saw this as a space that we could use, that was also open to the public.”
Things went well. They served a lot of burgers, fried chicken and pints during that hot, weird summer of 2020. Soon the brothers were eyeing up the barge opposite, named Poppy — formerly an office. Caravel’s kitchen used to be a meeting room. “We gutted that and turned it into a kitchen. Apart from that it’s been pretty simple. We did it really slowly.”
It doesn’t feel like being on a boat. Stepping into a bright entrance surrounded by plants, stairs lead down to the dining room. Wooden floorboards, white table cloths and a semi-open kitchen. Compact and clean. The only clue that you might be on the barge are a couple of stained glass porthole windows, one of the fews relics left over from the space's previous life. A pigeon holds a cigarette in its beak in one. Timeout has called it London’s “most romantic restaurant.” Marina O’Loughlin of the Times called it a “dreamboat.” It is very pretty.
“The only bit of inspiration I had was a vague concept,” says Fin. “The nightclub table scene in Goodfellas. The kitchen walk-through, the white tablecloths and the small lamps. There are other partners, the guys who own the studios, and we had a real back-and forth over table cloths, which I was set on. I think I’ve been proven right. Then it was the salt and pepper grinders, which have to be Peugeot. We wanted the upstairs to looks like someone’s front room. We don’t want people to feel intimidated when they walk in.”
Lorcan has put together a tight, contemporary menu. A few options across courses and, except for that caviar rösti, a series of constantly shifting dishes depending on what is in season. The cocktails, including a rose negroni that can easily become three, are pre-made before service. On a boat, space is - as you might expect - fairly minimal. “We make the most of it,” says Fin, cheerily. “You just need to be organised.”
Apart from a man who “might have been on something” picking up the crab linguini with his hands and causing a fuss, much to the embarrassment of his dining companion, the early days of the restaurant have been smooth sailing. “It’s fun, it’s exciting,” says Lorcan. “Having an idea and then executing it.” There are five more boats along the canal of similar size. When we visited, the brothers were refurbishing one into a bar, Bruno's, which recently opened.
“We wanted to put a bowling alley in it,” says Lorcan, “but it couldn’t work with the dimensions. We’ve also had an idea for putting a diner in one… we’ll see.” They’re still running the Studio Kitchen, too. It’s a busy operation.
“I like it around here,” says Fin, as we stand and admire the restaurant’s dark orange (rust?) and wood-panelled exterior. There are dog walkers and people cycling along the canal and someone having a very animated phone conversation, gesticulating wildly across the water. “You’re right in the middle of it all, but just about removed enough.
“The plan is for people to seek us out. That’s what happens with all the best restaurants, isn't it?"
“Come and find us.”