EATING OUT / Fish and chips a la grecque: Costa's

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The Independent Culture
Costa's Fish Restaurant, 18 Hillgate Street, London W8 7SR. Tel: 071-727 4310.

Open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Saturday.

Average price per person excluding wine pounds 8. No credit cards accepted.

Now that my colleague Daisy Waugh is beginning to go to a better class of restaurant, I thought it was time I came clean and admitted that I am probably more dependent than I should be on fish and chips. This goes back to childhood conditioning.

Once a week, when my mother couldn't face cooking, I was sent out to fetch them from what now seems a nostalgic fantasy of a fish and chip shop in Eastbourne, with shining chromium covers and a proprietor in a white coat that never showed a spot of grease.

It had no tables. A proper sit-down fish and chip restaurant is, I suppose, a bit of a contradiction in terms. Fish and chips always taste a lot better with plenty of salt and vinegar eaten with the fingers. If you want tables, however, I would recommend Costa's Fish Restaurant, just south of Notting Hill Gate. I have been going there on and off for about 15 years, and I have always been very impressed by its consistency. It is run by Greeks.

Good old British fish and chips in Lewes, where I spend a certain amount of time, have fallen into the hands of the Chinese: Mr Chips at the top of the town seems to me a great deal better than The Friar at the end of Fisher Street. At Mr Chips they always appear to use fresh fat, the resulting crisp batter only lightly coats the fish, and the chips are well cooked without being soggy. At The Friar they have a disagreeable habit of hoiking little curlicues of fried batter and scraps up into a sort of cage above the hot fat, which undermines confidence.

In London I can strongly recommend the Hi-Tide, in one of the little streets opposite Earls Court station. It is run by Australians, who prefer to cook the fish as you order it. If you want to eat it there you are a bit exposed, at a row of brightly-lit plastic-topped tables virtually facing the queue for takeaways.

Geale's, also just south of Notting Hill, has been owned by the same English family since 1939. The atmosphere is slightly tongue-in- cheek, with coloured paper napkins and a proper wine list, but I can't say I like it. Whenever I have been there, it has struck me as suffering from its own success. The wine waiters are reasonably efficient, but the rest of the staff give the impression of having to serve too many tables - and you do have to wait a long time to get your food.

If Geale's attracts a mixture of guidebook- toting tourists and good, middle-class English folk who wouldn't be seen dead in a proper fish and chip shop, Costa's around the corner is a lot more authentic. There is a little front shop, with a fish-fryer, a counter, a couple of chairs and a bench where you can wait if you have come for what the Scots call a carry-out, and the restaurant itself is down a step at the back. The tables are small and plastic-topped and it is all quite simple and intimate.

I think my wife, an economical person, found it first, and I took her there the other evening on the way to see Four Weddings and a Funeral. There is a choice of starters - kalamari, rollmops, melon, avocado, taramasalata or hummus with pitta bread, and tomato soup. I have in the past enjoyed the tomato soup, which is warming and pretty straight Heinz, but we had instead the taramasalata and hummus - both priced at pounds 1.50. They were very good, as taramasalata and hummus go, and the bread was very warm and fresh.

The wine list is very interesting, sociologically. It starts with ouzo at pounds 1.30 a glass, followed by brandy, vodka, whisky etc, all at the same price, and Bacardi and Campari at 20 pence a glass cheaper. Only then does it get to a very short section on wine, which is largely Greek, at pounds 7 a bottle. We took the retsina, which is actually fine with fish and chips.

Regulars at Costa's are hard to define: a few old biddies come in from time to time to be chatted up by the bespectacled Greek waiter. There are occasional Notting Hill solitaries, possibly intellectuals, and certainly very few customers with money to throw about.

The evening we were there, there were two couples who were of particular interest: both the men were probably in their thirties, tweedy, intelligent, florid and rural, and both their partners looked like the heroines of Victorian novels, with thin, tormented, but far from unattractive faces.

I watched them for a while, and although they were talking in an undertone, decided from their lip movements that they must be American. My wife agreed with me that only New Englanders looked like that nowadays, and we had spent quite a while discussing the way that real Englishness has been preserved in those parts when one of the men hailed the other and it turned out they both came from Wiltshire.

Our haddock was, as it has always been at Costa's, freshly cooked, un-greasy, un-bony, and served on a warmed plate with plenty of chips. There was then the traditional moment when my wife embarrasses me by asking not for 'tartar sauce' which the bespectacled Greek waiter could manage on his head, but so-ahs tar-tah, which always leads to a public scene. I made do, more discreetly, with so-ahs toh-maht. The restaurant also offers chicken, hamburgers, sausages and fish cakes, but I am afraid I've never tried them.

For pudding, if you haven't had enough fried batter by that time, there are apple fritters and banana fritters. The best thing is the baklava. We just had two cups of tea, which is better than the coffee.

Dinner for two, with the wine and the tip, came to pounds 26.