Emily Green suggests Some soul food (and five places to eat it)

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The Independent Culture
These five restaurants are affordable. A couple of them have great food, too. Most importantly, they all have soul

CROUCH END

To drink at Banner's, 21 Park Road, N8 (081-292 0001), one must first order some food. This would be no problem if this place were the bar it should be instead of the restaurant it probably shouldn't be. On the bright side, the food may come slowly. In fact, it might never arrive: I once spent 20 blissful minutes watching the cook chat on the phone as my order sat in the kitchen. The hooch was a good first course and the music was great (it is supplied, according to locals, by Andy Kershaw). Best, it is a great place for people-watching. The lovely young woman who works harder than her staff is owner Juliet Banner. The single guy at the bar feeding the girls careful doses of angst about his work in famine relief (chicks love it) is a regular. Or a Sunday night might produce my favourite pair: a man and woman whose frank flirting has a wonderful lethargy. Last time I saw them, the woman suddenly declared, "I haven't slept with a man in three years!", to which he responded, "That recently?" Snacks from £2; light meals from £5-£15. Open 10am-11.30pm Mon-Sat, to 11pm Sun. Visa, Access

COVENT GARDEN

Now Cafe Piazza, 16-17 Russell Street, WC2 (071-379 7543) is a place where it is unlikely an authentic, genuine Briton from London, England, will be recognised, except by the genius of a manager named Salvo Alfano. This dashing gent might whisk you off to a table, wing a huge and perfectly cooked disk of pizza bread to you, and after your meal introduce you to the wonderful hazelnut liqueur called Nochino. Not bad treatment for a barn of a theme restaurant that fills up with footsore tourists and hen parties. Ah, avoid the salads. Set-price two-course lunch and dinner £5.95. Approx £10-£15. Open 12 noon- 11.30pm daily. Major credit cards and Switch

ELEPHANT AND CASTLE

What a nice restaurant like Pizzeria Castello, 20 Walworth Road, SE1 (071-703 2556) is doing in a dismal concrete jungle like Elephant and Castle is obvious: raising the tone. This family pizza restaurant fills up with a cross-section best summed up by their hair-dos: afros, tall, blonde and teased, skin-head, Princess Di blow-dries, Rapunzel locks, Vidal Sassoon blunt bob and short back and sides. The pies are OK (a bit doughy) but it is the verve and cheer of the staff that keeps the place packed out. The quattro stagione with extra capers is the staple meal of our travel editor (£4.50 to eat in, £4.95 take-away). Open 12noon-11pm Mon-Fri; 5-11pm Sat. Approx £10-£12 all-in. Access, Visa, Amex

SOHO

If you qualify for a banker's card, you are probably too rich to usurp a seat at Pollo, 20 Old Compton Street, W1 (071-734 5917). This is an old Soho hangout where food is cheap, wine is thin, service is hectic and fittings are decaying Fifties period pieces. So why mention it? The cheery greeting at the door. The friendly muscle with which you are jammed into booths with strangers. The flaming zambucca. The walls juddering when the mixer is turned on to make zabaglione. Regulars who eat here because they are poor do not take much guff from slumming hipsters: Kathy Acker's visit in the mid-Eighties, shortly after her profile on the South Bank Show, was particularly poorly received. Evidently, when reading Time Out aloud (and loudly), she affected never to have heard of Francis Ford Coppola. A local pensioner rumbled her. Approx £7. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Sat; cash and cheques only

LEYTON

Bob Ramzan (aka Fatman), a Macau-born chef who has lived in England these last 20 years, used to get up to the culinary equivalent of Bunburying: he would leave his rather lacklustre bakery in Forest Gate, East London, and nip over to Stratford to cook steak diane and various flambs in what he describes as a "European" restaurant. Then, last year, he started cooking five- and seven-course Chinese meals for locals out of the back of his bakery. These became so popular, he is down to one life and a thriving family business: Fatman Kitchen, 43 Woodgrange Road, Forest Gate, E7 (081- 519 3126). A menu lists 171 dishes, but regulars simply ask to be fed. Among the very cheap, very fresh and very good food that will flow from the kitchen might be twice-fried aubergine in Sichuan pepper sauce, a Cantonese egg custard in a spicy stock and lightly battered then deep- fried vegetables. Best to notify for vegetarian meals. Opening 12noon until "end of dinner" Mon-Sat. Best to book on weekend. Cash and cheques only. Approx £9. Unlicensed. BYO

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