Located conspicuously under a row of three shadowy awnings, lies the South London landmark 805 – a beacon of West African cuisine in the nation’s capital.
For 15 years it’s served Nigerian expatriates in dire need of home cooking and curious foodies wanting to try a taste of the Motherland.
I myself, a south-east London native had never visited the place. So I decided now was a great time as any to try it out.
With 100,000 Nigerian-born Brits living in London and close to one million Brits of Nigerian heritage in the UK, I find it perplexing that the food of the most populous black nation in the world isn’t as revered as French, Chinese, Italian, Indian and Caribbean foods.
So on a cold, windy October night I got on the 53 bus and made my way to the restaurant.
The location is a strange one, it’s located on the busy Old Kent road, yards from Southwark’s notorious concrete jungle, the Tustin Estate.
A far cry from fancy restaurants in Marylebone and Knightsbridge, it’s nestled firmly between an Afro-Caribbean salon and a corner shop for the locals, however TimeOut described 805 as “colourful” which I’d consider a stretch.
The attempt at contemporary decor and solid style is complimented by the moody lighting and smart wooden and leather furnishings.
It was busy for a Monday night, far busier than I expected.
Raucous and vibrant sounds filled the restaurant. Mums and dads with their little children doing their very best to make sure those kids don’t forget where they come from I’d suspect, sat alongside cute couples chomping dinner.
Folks after a long day at work, traipsed in continuously to grab a late takeaway, kicking off the monotonous work week. A party of some sort was happening in the adjacent room, completing the lively aura. That’s when I felt the “colourful” ness TimeOut previously described.
A regular customer named Tommy agreed with my inference: “The ambiance is what you would expect from a Nigerian restaurant, loud and involved not really intimate at all.”
The staff were kitted out in monochrome uniforms and my companion and I found it difficult to hear our waiter over the clamorous sounds of R‘n’B and Afrobeats.
805 haven’t yet escaped BPT (black people time) when it comes to their waiting times and it seemed like an eternity before our slow-barbecued beef suya, a Nigerian street-food favourite, arrived alongside my Monika grilled whole croaker fish with a hot green chilli dipping sauce and fried, perfectly sliced pieces of plantain.
Just to be frivolous I ordered a side of traditional fried rice scattered with an array of precision-diced mixed vegetables while my Ghanaian friend was served fried tilapia on a bed of sautéed spinach and tomato sauce called ‘efo riro’ by us Yorubas.
It was bejeweled with prawns and shards of rehydrated dried cod called stock fish. He sipped on Coke while I continued the tropical theme with a glass of cold pressed pineapple juice.
The food was a feast for the eyes. The well-known chef’s adage “you eat with your eyes first” is something many West African restaurants often forget.
Harold, another customer, remarked that 805 is “one of few African restaurants, if not only [one] I’ve been to that has a nice setting and doesn’t look too disorganised or unprofessional.”
Though another restaurant-goer Mariam mentioned that the “only bad thing was the toilets”.
The food was presented well, appetising and well portioned. 805 points out this unique selling point on their website: “Our aim is to show our passion for good food through our creativity, presentation and combination of flavours.”
And it’s those combination of flavours that lifts the restaurant to lofty heights.
The addition of coconut milk to the fried rice was an inspired one. It’s subtlety melded well with aromatic spices and seasonings of the much-loved rice dish. While the suya, seasoned to perfection edged on the side of chewy when it should melt once in contact with a willing mouth.
Still, the highlight for me was the juniper green hued chilli sauce. It had a bite to it, a texture that danced on my palate. It’s addictive, so addictive and moreish I’m certain it’s laced with crack.
It needs to be bottled, I mean if Nando’s can bottle their sauces why can’t 805? Food (and condiments) for better living exclaims the restaurant tagline and it sure has bettered the lives of locals missing home, those wanting to draw closer to their culture and for inquisitive foodies like me, Harrison Ford and Gabrielle Union.
Be sure to visit the Flagship Restaurant on Old Kent Road, or the other branches in Hendon, Abuja and the newest one in Reading.
Address: 805 Old Kent Rd, London SE15 1NX
Contact: 020 7639 0808, www.805restaurants.com, @805Restaurants
Price: £35 for a three-course meal and a cocktail
Opening Times: Mon-Sat: 12pm-12am, Sun: 1pm-12am
All images by Ruth Fajemirokun