EATING OUT The Caribbean cool shoulder

SMOKEY JOE'S 131 Wandsworth High Street, London SW18 4JB. Tel: 0181-871 1785. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner. Saturday all day and Sunday 3.30pm to 10.30pm. Average price for main course £5. No credit cards accepted
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THERE WAS a most pleasant sense of inverse showing-off in inviting a friend to Smokey Joe's. "It's nothing smart, it's just, like, this Caribbean/American soul food diner these incredibly cool people from the funky underworld mentioned to me." (In fact I found it in a restaurant guide. It often pops up in London restaurant guides, and in around-town columns in newspapers as "that rare thing, a genuinely original place".) By the time we arrived we had built it up in our imaginations into a Harlem-style dive, very dangerous, with fights breaking out, Aretha Franklin jumping on the tables and thick smoke everywhere. It was therefore quite surprising to walk into a small, twinkly-clean establishment on Wands-worth High Street, rather like a sandwich bar.

There was a tiny curl of smoke coming from the cigarette of the only occupant, a grey-haired West Indian man who was sitting reading a magazine, sporting a straw hat with a hole in it, a red and white striped apron and half-moon spectacles. Call us psychic, but we guessed this was Smokey Joe himself.

"Aaahm, we booked a table for 8.30," I blurted, looking around at four empty Formica tables and a refrigerated counter.

Our host was courteous enough to let this pass, though not able to prevent "prat" from crossing his features. He gestured us to one of the tables explaining that you order from the blackboard, where "jerk" pork was prominently on display. He handed us a peel-off pad to write our order on, then carried on reading his magazine. It is a bring-your-own-bottle establishment so we fished our cans out of a carrier bag and tried to settle down.

The diner had only just reopened after redecoration. It was all bright and jolly, with yellow and green dcor, pastel Formica, a gas fire, Jazz FM on the radio and much memorabilia from customers on the walls: a letter from Diane Abbott, a leaflet saying "Do You Want to Work in the Film Industry?" and a picture of Smokey Joe with a rainforest Indian chief. There was something about our host which made us feel all middle-class and awkward, as if we might suddenly come out with "Smokeee, where in the Caribbean do you come from?" or "Sweet Formica - is it from Peter Jones?"

All was not quite as it seemed, though. After a while the place began to fill up with fashionable south-of-the-river types in baggy jumpers and odd headgear. Smokey Joe liked them much more than us, and immediately settled himself next to one of the girls, saying "You bin to Cuba?" and schmoozing with a boy in a red and yellow checked top- hat, asking "Were you shootin' a video roun' here a few days ago?" "Yar, I'll send you a signed copy of the CD," was the reply. We subsequently discovered that Smokey Joe is a former photographer and magazine writer called Charlie Phillips, who a couple of years ago published a book of photographs of Notting Hill in the Sixties. I think the problem was that we weren't trendy enough.

We were very pleased when our starters arrived, grateful for something to do to stop us feeling left out. My friend had gone for roti (West Indian pancake) and chicken curry which arrived looking like two small rolls of loft insulation. They were scrumptious in an enormous kind of way, combining all the charms of nan bread and vindaloo with those of a Swiss roll.

I, more daintily, chose the prawns, still in their shells, in a thin, fishy, spicy sauce which turned into a dish of unbelievable messiness. Wodge after wodge of serviettes were not enough to soak the juice up from my fingers, despite the finger bowl. It was as if my fingers were splurging sauce of their own accord like something from The Exorcist. Smokey Joe had suggested eating the juice with a spoon, but prawns cannot be eaten with a spoon unless you have a double-jointed tongue and can somehow chew off the heads and skin inside your mouth and spit them on to the table.

Various painted signs and blackboards offered a tempting range of take- away and eat-in food: ribs, curries, corn on the cob, fruit punches, cakes and sundaes. Eat-in starters started at £1.10, and main courses were around £4-£6. We were slightly disappointed by our main courses. They weren't terrible, they just weren't as delicious as all the fuss about a small caf would lead you to expect. My friend's jerk pork was "nicely cooked but a bit fatty". The dark brown sauce was "piquant and spicy". My Jamaican chicken also came in a dark brown sauce which was piquant and spicy. Maybe I was unlucky, but there seemed to be a lot of skin and sliminess around and no juicy bits, which is not what you expect for £5.25. The accompanying rice and peas turned out to be just rice with, weirdly, a few bits of fusilli pasta added almost as a design feature. The biggest success was the fried plantain. It always seems such a treat to have something as delicious as a banana counting as a vegetable.

Having gobbled the lot greedily while discussing our reservations, we found to our horror that there was no room left for a pudding each and nothing to be done but to share one. Our banana pancake arrived garnished with banana slices in an attractive pattern with a glac cherry on top. The whole ensemble with its syrup and dollop of cream was far beyond sweet, but somehow exactly the right thing. The little cherry brought on a wave of nostalgia for a forgotten garnish world: upside- down half-grapefruits speared with pineapple chunks on cocktail sticks, trifles covered in hundreds and thousands and lamb chops served with peach slices or segments of tinned mandarin orange.

When the time came to ask for the bill, our host rather hurt our feelings by not bringing it, and going to talk to the video-makers instead. After a while, we asked again, and he said: "This is when it become not a restaurant, this is when it become a social centre," which seemed marvellous news, no bill at all! When we put our coats on, though, it suddenly arrived, and at £22 for two-and-a-half courses each plus coffee seemed absolutely fair.

Jolly restaurants where you can pop in for a substantial, cheapish meal are a boon to urban life. On the way home we both agreed Smokey Joe's would be great if it was your local diner. But with such a quietly dominant character in charge in such a tiny space you need to be a favoured regular. Otherwise you won't end up in a fist fight or covered in smoke, but you might just end up feeling a bit crestfallen.