FITZROVIA Elena Salvoni, a petite Clerkenwell Italian, will go down in history as the restaurant host of post-war Britain. She spent 30 years at the Soho restaurant Bianci's, which she refers to as "the birthplace of television". By 1981, a young restaurateur named Nick Lander (now restaurant critic of the Financial Times), had the wit to lure her to L'Escargot, where her persuasive charm reigned for a decade. When the place abruptly changed management several years ago, she left and the rumours flew that "Elena's friends" were to set her up in a new restaurant. One friend appears to have been industry player, television chef and owner of chain restaurants, Roy Ackerman. Alas, to judge by a recent meal, this gentleman's company, The Restaurant Partnership, may be using her fine name, and charm, to shift food that is rather too high in price and low in quality at the seven-week-old Elena's Etoile, 30 Charlotte Street, W1 (071-636 7189). After consuming two courses that involved tough bean salads, poor quality tournedos, mealy chips and thin bearnaise, and consuming two glasses of house wine (white warm, red oxidised), two of us managed to spend £53.90. Open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. Major credit cards.
COVENT GARDEN Since Terence Conran opened Neal Street, 26 Neal Street, WC2 (071-836 8368) in 1971, there have been two legendary managers. First was Charles Campbell, an eccentric whose boozy bonhomie attracted the likes of Francis Bacon. The second (nowowner) was Antonio Carluccio (left), a bear-like Italian whose enthusiasm for fungi hunting has been documented by television programmes and books. Carluccio, however, is less a cook, even a "foodie", than greeter par excellence, whose enthusiasms are palpable, be they for honey mushrooms, malt whisky or his friend Paolozzi, whose artwork so suits the classic modernism of the place. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Sat. Approx £40-£50. Major credit cards.
MAYFAIR The difference between fleet hospitality and smarmy schtick becomes obvious when one witnesses the nimble grace of Silvano Giraldin at work. For 23 years, he has been maitre d'hotel at Le Gavroche, 43 Upper Brook Street, W1 (071-408 0881). This man, it seems, never forgets a face. If you order a certain red burgundy, he might gently enquire, "And would you like that very lightly chilled?" - a clue, but not a snotty declaration, that this improves the drinking. His customers will never feel mean opting for the bargain set-price lunch (3 courses, half bottle of wine, coffee, petit fours, service, for £37) because there is a choice of three items for each course; it is some of the best food anywhere; and Mr Giraldin is proud of the value. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Fri. Major credit cards.
PICCADILLY Sandra Feeham has been unmissable at Bentley's Oyster Bar, 15 Swallow Street (071-734 4756) for 20 years. This marvellous Ulsterwoman (above) is the one who might insist to a rather sozzled customer: "It's 3pm. You asked me to get you back to your office, and your office is where I'm getting you back to!" And the oysters are something special: a half-dozen Irish native number ones £14.75, number twos £13.25, half-dozen rock oysters £8.50. Oyster bar open noon-10pm Mon-Sat, with hot meals served between noon-2.30pm and 5.30-10pm. Major credit cards.
NOTTING HILL Everyone is special at Costa's Grill, 14 Hillgate Street, W8 (071-229 3794) but this praise is for Louis Papadopoulos, who for 20 years has treated poets, punks and old colonels with the same quiet hospitality. Hummus, grilled chicken and the Greek salad is one of my favourite meals. Note that it is called "grill" for a reason; baked dishes tend to be less satisfying. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Sat. Cash and cheques only. Approx £10-£15.
WANDSWORTH There is more than the best-tasting ribs this side of Chicago at a scruffy caff called Smokey Joe's, 131 Wandsworth High Street, SW18 (081-871 1785) ... there is the man himself. This remarkable Jamaican runs his place with just the right measure of pride and bonhomie. But his watchful (and strikingly blue) eyes tell the story. He might be amused, or wondering how to tell you he is saving the last portion of jerk chicken for a bus driver who is just about to come off his shift, or how to handlea troublemaker.
Ribs to take away £3.90; ribs dinner £4.80. Open noon-3pm, 6-11pm Mon-Fri; noon-11.30pm Sat; 2-10.30pm Sun. Cash and cheques only.Reuse content