Eating Out: Popping in for a spring bite

TRANSILVANIA; 335 West End Lane, London NW6 1RC. Tel: 0171 431 5137. Open every day from 6pm until midnight. Average price per person, pounds 12. Payment by cheque or cash only
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The Independent Culture
Especially in the autumn and winter - when most new restaurants tend to open up - it's easy to get into the habit of writing only about expensive, yuppie haunts in light, airy spaces with wooden floors, and risottos and scallops on the menu. What better way, then, to usher in the spring than to write about a Goth bar called Transilvania with death, vampires and ghoulishness as its theme.

We had whipped ourselves into unrealistic over-excitement prior to our arrival, expecting a decadent throng of sulky young things, dressed in batwing with dark rings round their eyes, biting the heads off rats and threatening to suck our blood. Strange then to be dropped at what looked, from the outside, like a West Hampstead travel agents with a red and white name-plate above the entrance, listing outlets in Milan, New York, Rimini, Rome and LA.

Inside, though, was like being in the London Dungeon as we were shown to our table - a glass coffin full of human bones. The wall was decorated with panels depicting various stages in the lead-up to the Crucifixion and the ceiling with cobwebs and string and quite a lot of dust. "I think this is just a bloody good excuse not to clean," muttered my friend Tina. Incongruously, the music was an easy listening tape including such hits as "Ben" by the young Michael Jackson loosely complying with the Gothic theme, being about a pet rat, which was more than could be said of "I Just Called to Say I Love You".

We looked around expectantly at our fellow diners, trying to avoid the gaze of the two chaps at the next coffin, who were clearly on the first stage of a long night on the pull and dressed in the Best of Gap. There was a boy across the aisle promisingly kitted out in leather and cobwebs, the effect disappointingly undermined by his girlfriend in a polo neck with a nice handbag who seemed to be trying to help him through his commitment crisis. Behind them, a coffin of four Japanese tourists were looking at me and my friend with obvious dismay.

The waitress, however, was no disappointment, dressed in black from head to toe with a completely white face and fangs. Sweetly, though, when asked to explain the menu, her manner was not so much Antichrist blood-sucker as blushing Devon milkmaid. "What is this?" we asked, pointing to Big Dick. "It's a selection of appetisers for two people which comes on a platter shaped like, well, um, you know... shaped like, um, the title," she said, then shot off back to the kitchen, presumably to cross herself.

We thought and studied hard. Drinks? A heading of Venial Sin offered "1 metre of lager or bitter," or "Real Group Killer - 5 litres of beer." Cocktails - Vampire Kiss, Bat Drink, Nosferatu etc - were nearly all, bizarrely, nonalcoholic. The food was mainly pizzas, pastas and buns with a theme of pretending to be stuffed with Satanic ingredients, then turning out not to be: Bat Pizza was cheese and tomato pizza; Dead Body, an artichoke and salami roll; and Satan Balls, chocolate profiteroles. In the end we decided to plump for Big Dick, if only to see what our fanged, blushing vampire would do.

A chosen bottle of Pinot Trebbiano at pounds 12 (from a wine list of five) turned out to be off, so a Chardonnay was produced instead which turned out to be fizzy. When we raised the issue of the fizz with our waiter - all in black with slicked- back Dracula hair - he seemed to be trying to tell us that Chardonnay was always like that, so we decided to drink it anyway as it tasted a bit like alco-pop.

"Well it's not big at all, it's very short and fat," said Tina as our vampire discreetly placed the Big Dick - a stubby, arrow-shaped, wooden platter with a bobble on the end - sideways on the coffin with an apologetic smile. The whole thing did make us laugh quite a bit which I suppose is the point with theme places like this: perhaps if people were completely off their trees on drink or drugs it would be absolutely hilarious.

The starter was hilarious. There were olives and bits of pickled vegetable dotted around, but the basis was an enormous pile of the sort of "mock pizzas" you make when you're 15 and fooling around in the kitchen - triangles of toast with bits of cheese and tomatoes, and low-grade meat and fish mashed up on top. Mind you, we had been warned: "Transilvania, Make Your Will Before You Come In," it said at the top of the menu, but it wasn't as bad as all that. In fact, we found ourselves getting the entire, er, thing, down quite happily and without incident.

"Urrgh, uurghh, urrgh," said Tina, pointing behind me, where the Dracula waiter appeared to have the - well, you know the, errr, starter title - draped around his neck: broad, pink, muscular and pulsating. It was an albino python. Noticing our appalled stares, the Dracula man rushed it to our table. "What do you feed him on?" we asked politely, trying to discreetly shrink from the flicking tongue, as if being entertained by a dog lover whose pet Dobermann pinscher is trying to put its head up your skirt. "Mouse," said Dracula. "Are they, er, alive?" said my friend. "No, no, I get them from the pet shop," said Dracula, "frozen."

At this, we coughed up pounds 18.50 for our bottle of alco-pop and starter and dived into a taxi to have a main course at Lola's in Islington, north London, which everyone keeps saying is a great neighbourhood restaurant. Opened late last year in a room above the antiques Mall (following on the heels of a less than successful Italian restaurant) it's pretty good. There are a few decorative horrors left over from the previous incarnation: indoor fences, and on- wall fleur-de-lis, but it was a relief to have a bottle of nice white Burgundy and a light, delicate, tasty pair of main courses: scallops for Tina, risotto for me. The space is large, airy and open, with a predominantly yuppie clientele, and there weren't any albino snakes or bone-filled coffins. Somehow it seemed just the right sort of place to go usher in the spring.