Journeying south of the river is unheard of in East London, and to travel all the way down to Balham when you’re based in Hoxton is almost sacrilege. Normally, I’d agree with them, but someone reminded me that if Frodo thought the same in Lord of the Rings all the Hobbits would be speaking Orcish by now and maybe I should just get over the extra ten minute tube ride. So, upon hearing that this restaurant bar would be screening an Oscar-winning film and that it has a bit of reputation as a South London fun hot-spot, I decided to have an adventure down the Northern Line to see if The Exhibit is worth the trip.
The Venue and Atmosphere
The Exhibit sits just steps away from the station, offering two floors of industrial cool. Downstairs is filled with minimalist furnishings, floor-to-ceiling black tinted windows at the front and exposed wooden panels at the back. The relaxed vibe extends throughout the entire venue, whether it’s from the open bar in the centre (with its spirits built in a pyramid in the middle like a monument to alcohol), the open kitchen upstairs, or the balcony, designed for al fresco dining, with the words ‘Eat Anywhere, Drink Anywhere’ etched into its wooden railings.
The cinema is soundproofed and packed with comfy sofas, perfect for sinking into. The screen is large and the sound is cinema-quality, for a fraction of the price. The crowd was mostly twenty-somethings enjoying the affordable food, drink and cinema, with a few older people treating it as their local. We visited on a normally-quiet Tuesday, and while I wasn’t queuing for a drink outside the door, the vibe was still buzzing and wonderfully welcoming.
The Food and Drink
After emerging from two hours of some of the most beautiful cinema ever committed to film (I watched Moonlight; it was emotional), we sat down for dinner. I’m pretty sure this is a universal experience, but after watching a film of that magnitude it normally takes me a few minutes/hours to compose myself, collect my thoughts and try to come back to reality, so the thought of having dinner with my friend – even a dear friend – was a bit overwhelming.
But the staff possessed an ability to be equally charming, helpful and informal to the extent that the weight of watching art sort of washed away. Seriously, the staff here might be the biggest draw – everyone we met was amazing and friendly, and it really contributes to its cool, ‘youth club for adults’ image. Having settled into our dinner table, we ordered a bottle of the incredibly drinkable red wine Campo Flores Tinto (£20.50) and began.
To start, I ordered the crispy octopus (£7.50) with smoky hot sriracha and lemon mayo and my friend chose the buffalo chicken wings (£7.50) with blue cheese dip and celery sticks. If you think you’re going to go hungry at The Exhibit, you are wrong and should definitely reconsider the buckle on your belt because the prices are low but the portions are my favourite size: big. The octopus was battered and delightfully cooked, with the hot sauce partnering with it well, while the buffalo wings were sticky and didn’t skimp on flavour.
Maybe eating in Central London for so long has confused me, but for main I ordered chipotle chicken (£11.50) with chargrilled corn on the cob, lime and coriander rice alongside a tortilla, as well as a side portion of sweet potato fries (£3.50), thinking I couldn't possibly fill up on that. Well, it turns out it was enough food to (nearly) defeat my bottomless stomach. The chicken was juicy and worked with the flavours of the rice – overall, a success. My friend ordered the buttermilk fried chicken burger (£13.50), with bacon, mature cheddar, avocado and fries.
With a cool aesthetic, affordable prices and fun atmosphere, if you’re a twenty-something in London, it’s worth the trip to Balham just for The Exhibit. However, its biggest attribute is that home-away-from-home attitude displayed to everybody who walks through those doors thanks to its excellent staff. So if you always wanted your own Central Perk or MacLaren’s pub, this is your best shot.