This little Vietnamese eatery has created quite the stir since it opened last year, although for a restaurant that seems to pride itself on authenticity, it falls a little short. That said, it remains a decent enough spot for an easy lunch.
Banh Mi Bay stands out on Theobalds Road for all the right reasons. The muted mint green exterior, complete with period features, and the huge windows offer glimpses of what’s within... a simple but well presented cafe. A handful of white wooden tables and chairs fill the floor space, illuminated by rather out-of-place granny lamps above, more reminiscent of a gastropub than a Vietnamese cafe. An open kitchen and easy access counter sit near takeaway units filled with eat-out options. That’s it. That’s all they need to do.
As with all of the lunchtime spots in the area, Banh Mi Bay is usually borderline frantic come 12pm and remains that way for a few hours. During this time, finding a seat is near impossible and you can forget a relaxing lunchtime experience. The staff seem hassled – as you’d expect – but are fast and this is clearly a well-oiled machine, pulling people in, leading them to food, getting them to the payment area, ushering them out. They seem to prefer take-out customers and you can hardly blame them for that. It’s a similar story throughout Bloomsbury.
Banh Mi is a popular option here – big surprise given it’s the restaurant’s namesake – which is a traditional Vietnamese sandwich, basically. Priced from £2.80 - £3, they’re competitive for the area, and include options like spiced pork and shredded caramel pork and all of them come with the traditional mix of pickled carrot, cucumber, coriander, fresh chilli and ‘sauce’. Hmmm, sauce. It’s spicy but pretty indiscriminate. The main problem with these sandwiches is they’re really just baguettes when they should have just used traditional Vietnamese bread. You'll get a sore jaw from all the chewing you have to do to eat it - which anyone who’s had an authentic Banh Mi will know, shouldn’t be the case. Still, in the case of the spiced pork, it is pretty well filled and nicely meaty with a pleasant kick. If you’re after something else then they do options like rice boxes or vermicelli noodle salads for £4-£5.
There’s a good choice of drinks at Banh Mi Bay, which is often neglected at most lunchtime spots that offer little more than soft drinks. Here, you can have anything from a glass of soy milk to fresh fruit smoothies. Otherwise, there is a choice of hot drinks ranging from tea and coffee to hot chocolate. All drinks are priced between £2 -£4, which is reasonable enough.
The Last Word
Banh Mi Bay is a nice (and similarly priced) break from Pret, M&S, Starbucks and the plethora of other high street names that dominate every London street. As long as you don’t go with expectations of the real Vietnamese experience then this makes for a nice lunchtime foray.