Emily Green suggests Five restaurants with generous helpings of character

BARBICAN

Carnevale, 135 Whitecross Street, EC1 (071-250 3452) is tiny but chic, so smart that a good number of diners never realise it is a vegetarian restaurant. The prices are low: £8.50 for two courses, £10.50 for three. Cooking capable of excellence, such as hearty celeriac and horseradish soup or a spicy risotto with dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts. Short list of reasonably priced wines includes a 1990 Montecillo Rioja for £10.75. Sandwiches, salads, cheeses from Neal's Yard sold to take away.

Open weekdays 10am-7pm (to 9pm Thur). Cash and cheques only

BATTERSEA

To an estate agent, Ransome's Dock, 35 Parkgate Road, SW11 (071-223 1611) is one sweet "local amenity''. This couth south London restaurant is set in what was originally a Thames ice warehouse, and is now a post-modern office block. The new arrangement affords free parking in a large courtyard and a river frontage. Second thought, don't drive: its wine list, put together with the help of at least one Master of Wine and leading merchants, has a superb selection of middle-priced, high quality bottles, particularly from Italy. The owners, Martin and Vanessa Lam, both do the cooking: he is chef, she is pastry chef. The menu tends to be quietly British, employing smoked haddock, Scotch beef and even regularly listing potted Morecambe Bay shrimp with granary toast. What their food occasionally lacks in common sense it makes up for with quality of raw ingredients and good intentions. So even underseasoned fish stew served with couscous, or a curious combination of red mullet served with an army of mussels, will gratify as real food.

Set two-course lunch £11.50; approx £30 for three courses, wine, coffee and VAT. Major credit cards. Open daily lunch, dinner Mon-Sat

CROUCH END

The ashen expression every morning of at least one of the dog-walkers in Alexandra Palace is due, often as not, to a hangover. These are achieved at Florians, 4 Topsfield Parade, Middle Lane, N8 (081-348 8348). This bar-restaurant has considerable charms: a good wine list, fair prices, wonderful bartenders, fantastic bonhomie among regular locals and decent Italian-style grub. Flaws: placing dishes of fatty-tasting olive oil on tables in which to dunk commercial ciabatta, as if either were a delicacy; a boss-type who might tell you with a smirk that you are "two minutes too late'' for a table; the odd lump of hair in otherwise good steak sandwiches and over-loud music. The charms, notably the bar, outnumber the faults.

Bar lunches approx £10; average spend in restaurant £20-£25. Bar open 12noon-11pm. Restaurant open daily lunch and dinner. Visa, Access

FULHAM

Fulham Road, 257 Fulham Road, SW3 (071-351 7823) is the third London place to be opened in the last seven years by a dapper Welshman named Stephen Bull. Mr Bull's early career in advertising might account for a certain slickness to his restaurants, but this new one is by far the most romantic, the most relaxed, the most luxurious and, it follows, the most expensive (allow £40 per person). I sat next to an exceedingly flash German who wore sunglasses in the dining room, only removing them to peer in astonishment at his food when he realised how very good it was. The Irish chef, Richard Corrigan, filches what he likes from where he likes. The veal tartare, seasoned with olive oil, lemon and garlic, served with more shaved garlic and comely bits of lamb's lettuce is Piedmontese. It is also superb. Exemplary wine list.

Open lunch and dinner daily. Visa, Access, Amex.

Quality fare: chic Carnevale (left) and Ransome's Dock (above)

SHEPHERD'S MARKET

Eat in the Lebanese restaurant Al Hamra, 31-33 Shepherd's Market, W1 (071-493 1954) and you will never be able to swallow tabbouleh as served by worthy but inept vegetarian restaurants ever again. It serves the real article: moist and fragrant, made with cubed ripe tomatoes and bags of chopped mint and parsley. Other dishes, such as spiced nuts, turn up the heat. Meat dishes to follow are good. Sit at the outside tables in the pedestrianised market and watch the world go by, including the proudest prostitutes ever to stalk a Tory MP. This restaurant has only two drawbacks: it's expensive (about £30 per person) and if a sheik steps out of a green roller and wants your table, your bill might arrive without your having asked for it.

Open 12noon-12midnight daily. Major credit cards (not Switch)

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