Consider the Alfa-red spindleback chairs at Pizza Express: they are quite deliberately hard. The choice of a classic kitchen chair also instantly connotes a family restaurant. Silly as it sounds, chairs do connote: the axe-handles used in the chair backs at Belgo, the Belgian-style theme restaurant in Chalk Farm, are the architect's joke: mediaeval Bruges meets the backside of an auditor from the Roundhouse.
Sir Terence Conran is perhaps the most nimble player of the chair game. Looking for a subtle, nautical motif for his Thames-side restaurant Pont de la Tour, he designed a chair which he describes as "a liberal interpretation of the chairs in the second-class dining room of the Normandy".
If this sounds whimsical, consider how many designers eschew nostalgia for pure fantasy: the high-backed, padded chairs one finds in any-number of lady-like restaurants (Fulham Road in South Kensington, La Tante Claire in Chelsea) could come straight from a fairy tale, say: "Cinderella, the Shopping Years."
It is a little-known fact of near uselessness that the restaurant chair was in the vanguard of the recent craze for wrought iron everything, particularly twisty candlesticks. The godfather of garden centre gothic is an architect and occasional restaurateur named Adrian Forsyth, who designed the Market Bar in Portobello Road in 1989 and last year followed it with a place called W11 in Holland Park.
W11 is a very agreeable pub conversion, but Mr Forsyth still does not seem to have deduced that the curly metal bits around the chair legs snag tights. Or perhaps he has a deal going with Sock Shop.
I can think of only one seriously good, relatively modern British restaurant chair. It is the chrome and leather number designed by Rick Mather for the Zen chain of restaurants. These are now used by upmarket Chinese restaurants on three continents. Yet lean, brand-new restaurants seem to be turning back to the Scandinavians. Duna in Clerkenwell, Tabac in North Kensington and the Chiswick all opened recently using Arne Jacobsen's 1955 stacking chair, something as beautiful as it is practical.
Those fond of saying modern British designers lack the utilitarian genius of the mid-century Scandinavians should remember that the Jacobsen's stacking chair was preceded by his three-legged Ant chair, a decidedly unstable item. Its modern equivalent, a delightful mistake, populates London's snazziest restaurant: Kensington Place. Architect Julyan Wickham is sensitive to criticism of his playful, loopy chairs. He was so fond of them, he moved a slightly amended version into the Harvey Nichols food hall. One might well employ the originals as a party trick: lean forward to hear your dining companion at Kensington Place, and the chair may slip out from under you. In this event, may I advise you to release the table. "Don't worry," said the waitress as she watched me climb up from the floor and fish an oyster out of the front of my dress. "It happens all the time."
Chairs R Here:
Belgo 72 Chalk Farm Road, NW1 (071-267 0718)
Mussels and chips, approx £l0-£l5
Le Pont de la Tour 36d Shad Thames, Butlers Wharf, SEI (071-403 8403)
Oyster bar and sumptuous restaurant serving gutsy roasts with grand wines, approx £50 per person in restaurant
Fulham Road 257 Fulham Road, SW3 (071-351 7823)
Near-perfect food fit for a men's club, but served to ladies who lunch, approx £40
La Tante Claire 68 Royal Hospital Road., SW3 (071-352 6045)
Michelin 3-star. Famed for its pig's trotters, set lunch with wine approx £40, dinner £60-£70
Market Bar 240 Portobello Road, W11 (071-229 6472)
Trustafarians mix with rastafarians downstairs; upstairs modish food from chefs who change jobs too quickly, approx £20-£30
W11 123a, Clarendon Road, W11 (071-229 8889)
Good grub from ex-Chelsea Arts Club chef Ricky Gibbs, approx £20-£25
ZenW3 73 Hampstead High Street, NW3 (071-794 7863)
Beautiful new wave Chinese restaurant, mainly Cantonese food, no MSG, approx £30
Tabac 46 Golborne Road, W10 (081-960 2433)
Groovy, fun place with Italianate food that can really wow or completely disappoint depending who is cooking, approx £15-£30
The Chiswick 131 Chiswick High Road, W4 (081-994 6887)
Great food from Bibendum-trained chef, at last glance rather knockabout service, approx £30-£40
Kensington Place 201 Kensington Church Street, W8 (071-727 3184)
Fantastically fun and fashionable place to fall out of your chair, approx £20-£30