As a cafeteria, it's the best : EATING OUT

Hamilton Place, London W1A 1AZ. Tel: 0171-499 0888. Open every day, lunch and dinner. Three-course set lunches £22.75-£29.75; three-course set dinner £25; la carte menu £25-£35 per head. All credit cards accepted. LANES
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The Independent Culture
YOU COULD be in Germany, you could even be in Australia, but it is hard to believe you are 100 yards from Hyde Park Corner. What is so un-English about lunch at Lanes Restaurant, on the first floor of the Four Seasons Hotel (formerly the Inn on the Park), is the combin-ation of unpretentiousness, discreet efficiency and friendly informality.

The restaurant is reached up a long flight of unusually shallow stairs, past gigantic arrangements of lilies, all intensifying the mood of Germanic luxury. There is a large bar outside where executives and visitors from abroad were drinking and chewing nuts.

It crossed my mind that it might be one of those places, like the Savoy, where anyone who is not wearing a jacket and tie is either excluded or kitted out in something risque from the gents' cloakroom. Then I caught sight of someone else in a sweater.

He, like me, must have been heading for the more informal of the hotel's two restaurants. There is the acclaimed Four Seasons Restaurant, presided over by Jean-Christophe Novelli, which has a wonderful view over the park and is for "fine dining" and jackets and ties. And then there's Lanes next door, which has no view, but is brightly decorated, hung with garish Aboriginal paintings and accommodates a more casual approach to dress. It has a gleaming central buffet with a marble top and glass-screened counters, copper saucepans and freshly cooked joints of underdone beef. It looks rather like a cafeteria.

If it is a cafeteria, Lanes is definitely the best I have ever eaten in. It is not cheap: there are four set menus, at £22.75, £26.50, £28.50 and £29.75, but all four include wine, mineral water, coffee and service, and the service and food are by any standards excellent.

The day we were there, the largest table in the room was occupied by what looked like a Russian ballet company - a dozen very pretty girls, a few boys, and a voluptuous woman in her early thirties in rapt conversation with the leader of the party, a middle-aged man with crisply waved hair and slightly divergent eyes who looked the perfect choreographer. Among the rest, one table could have been lunch for the manager and sales assistants of a small dress shop, others a mixture of business meetings and friends having lunch together.

My wife, who does not approve of lunch, immediately took to the place, and began to speculate contentedly about the Russians and our waiter, who, according to the name-tag on his coffee-coloured jacket with chocolate facings, was called Job. Having spent a large part of her life in the Netherlands, she was convinced from his slightly Indonesian eyes and otherwise northern European appearance that he was Dutch. This proved to be the case, and they got on extremely well.

Being economical, she asked for the cheapest menu, the so-called Hamilton Choice. This offered hors d'oeuvres from the central buffet or soup of the day, the daily chef's special, and a langoustine ravioli. There were in fact three soups of the day, and she chose a plain consomme. I had the slightly more expensive Park Lane Fayre - the Master's Choice, a pound or so dearer, seemed to include more substantial things like fish and chips, roast beef, duck or lamb - and had the choice of seven lighter main courses.

My menu offered grilled fish, marinated chicken in a curry sauce, spaghetti with broccoli, tomatoes and mozzarella, or beef teriyaki with tempura vegetables. I asked for liver: my menu offered only sauteed liver with onions and polenta. Job suggested I might prefer liver and bacon from the more expensive menu; it wouldn't cost any more.

It was while I was mooching along the hors d'oeuvres counter that I really began to be impressed. Apart from artichokes and peppers and all the usual stuff, there were mounds of smoked salmon and smoked ham, every kind of Japanese sushi and seaweed, and bowls of sliced ginger. Unlike the Regent Palace Hotel in my youth, where you were allowed as much as you could get on a plate the size of a saucer, the plates at Lanes are large, and most people seemed to be helping themselves to enough to make a pretty fat lunch out of their first course. Everything was fresh and good.

Despite the confidently benign service - in addition to food and wine waiters there was an assistant manageress in a blue uniform who kept an eye on every table - there was a momentary lapse when nobody explained to my wife that you had to fetch your own soup from one of the copper saucepans. This was soon forgotten, however. She is very nostalgic about the bouillon she used to have made in the Netherlands, which she has never been able to make herself since, and the consomme at Lanes seemed to approach the Holy Grail.

The bottle of Ctes du Rhone that we ordered - the alternative is a Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc - was as good as everything else, the langoustine ravioli received high praise, modified only by irritation that it should have come with four miniature tomatoes, and my liver and bacon was perfect.

For pudding we had a fairly wide choice from the trolley, my wife taking a sugar-free tart of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. I had a slice of apple and ginger pie. Both were faultless.

Which is more than can be said for my behaviour. Spurred on by my wife, who thought he would value the attention, I approached the Russian choreographer: he resented the interruption of his tete--tete with his bosom companion, wasn't a choreo-grapher at all, and seemed to think I was from the secret police; which, in a way, as a restaurant reviewer I suppose I am. The bill for us both, including everything, came to £55.