We were more than a bit tired. We'd come down to Penzance on the Night Riviera - one of the UK's two remaining sleeper train services. It had left London Paddington shortly before midnight and arrived in Penzance around 8am the next day. The theory was, we would sleep soundly and arrived refreshed, ready for a day of sight-seeing. This was based on our previous experience of sleeping on a train. But unlike the Sunset Limited, which rocked us gently from New Orleans to Los Angeles, the Night Riviera, hurtling us along England's south coast, was a less somniferous experience.
Having only slept for around 4 hours apiece, you might think we would take our first day in Penzance at a leisurely pace. In fact, unable to check into our hotel until 11am, we did the exact opposite. After dropping our bags off, we walked the entire town. And then we walked some more, making our way several miles down the coast to St. Michael's Mount (which was closed). But it's the journey, not the destination that's important, right? (We kept telling ourselves)
Exhausted and sunburned (it was a deceptively cloudy day) we returned to our hotel, checked in, had much needed showers, slathered ourselves in after sun and got dressed for dinner. And then we got undressed: a formal shirt and trousers were not going to cut it. Our sunburn hurt too much and it was, by now, swelteringly hot. Wherever we were going for dinner, it would have to permit the wearing of shorts and vests. "I'll be fine with a cone of chips," Antony intoned. I resisted the urge to grind my teeth audibly.
The day before our trip, I had spent hours scouring Trip Advisor making a shortlist of places to eat. Penzance has a reputation for being a foodie heaven. According to Trip Advisor, there are 190 places to dine. This in a town with a resident population of only 20,000.
We've always found Trip Advisor to be fairly reliable, but it has its quirks: the top places can often be cafés. Quick bites = more reviews and (potentially) disproportionately high rankings. This was quite probably the case with Penzance with its #1 ranked 'restaurant'. Its #2, however, looked just up our alley. Mermaid Alley to be precise. All rankings aside, Mermaid Alley looked exactly our kind of place: quirky themed decor, hand-crafted cocktails and well presented but satisfying food.
But we were tired, sunburned and not suitably attired for a sit down meal. Therefore, I didn't press for going there. The chance of us getting a table would be minimal. We had no reservation. Also, I didn't want to spend ages using Google Maps to find somewhere, even in a small town like Penzance. Instead, we meandered.
Two minutes into our meander we stumbled on Mermaid Alley. Serendipity had not deserted us. But would Mermaid Alley be able to fit us in?
The staff were extraordinarily welcoming from the moment we entered. Yes, they could seat us if we didn't mind waiting a few minutes. We said we'd happily wait, using this as an opportunity to sit and the bar and get to know the cocktail menu. More importantly, this allowed us the opportunity to get to know the woman behind the cocktails. A true mixologist, she asked us what drinks we liked already and advised us accordingly. We said we'd follow her recommendations for the next round. For the first, we'd been seduced by the promise of glitter. Several of the drinks on the menu (which is changed regularly) had glitter as one of their ingredients. Drinks featuring special effects (smoke, fire, dry ice) are still the rage close to where we live in Birmingham but they're rarely repeatable experiences. Once you'd had one drink served in a smoking test tube there's no urgent need for another. But who knew how compelling the visual effect of a quite literally 'sparkling' drink could be? Crucially, they tasted even better than they looked, the ingredients mixed in perfect proportions.
To begin with, I was drawn, like a sailor to a siren, to a Mermelza (prosecco, blue Curacao, raspberry vodka, and glitter).
Antony started with the tequila-based Ariel's Ruin, both of us agreeing that tequila was an eminently fitting spirit for Ariel, perhaps imaging an alternative downer ending to the Disney classic with the titular Little Mermaid drowning her sorrows after Eric runs off with Ursula instead.
We had barely had time to make headway with our drinks - at the bar - before our starters arrived - at the bar. Our server showed us to our table upstairs while the kitchen staff brought the food up with us. I went for the pulled pork Scotch egg and was amazed to discover the flavours were, like they were in drinks, perfectly in balance. Contemporary spins on classics can sometimes come across as trying-too-hard, but this was an overwhelmingly successful experiment. As was Antony's mojito lamb which captured the essence of the rum and mint-based cocktail without sacrificing any of the juicy lamb flavours.
The mains were very satisfying. Although on the surface Antony's Californian fish 'n' chips sounded like a more staid selection, it came with the best mayonnaise either of us had ever tasted. My 'tempura-ed guacamole' sounded intriguing on the menu and didn't disappoint in reality.
For dishes that looked so delicate, they were very filling. We ordered two sides: crispy potatoes and 'three cheese' mac and cheese. We finished neither and regretted not taking them up on their offer to box them up for us.
Our only other regret is that we didn't have chance to work our way through more of the menus - for both the food and cocktails. Perhaps Mermaid Alley might consider a tapas style tasting menu for people, like us, who were only in Penzance for one night. If we had been staying for a week, there would be no doubt that we would have eaten at Mermaid Alley every night.
It's rare to find a place where the quality of the food matches the drinks, or vice versa. From talking to the staff it became apparent what made Mermaid Alley such a success: a top chef and a top mixologist decided they'd had enough of working for others and combined their expertise to start their own place. Thus: a perfect balance, each complementing the other.
In all, it took us 15 hours to reach Penzance from our own front door. One metro and two trains, with a fair amount of waiting in between. We could have flown to Tokyo in this time. But we would do it all again just to eat at Mermaid Alley.
Find out more, including opening times and the latest menus, at: