John Walsh suggests Six restaurants with atmosphere

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The Independent Culture
Forget the food - here are six establishments where you eat the atmosphere and drink the decor LADBROKE GROVE Eating at Beach Blanket Babylon, 45 Ledbury Rd, W11 (071-229 2907) is the nearest you'll get to lunching on a film set. One of the wilder follies to have sprung from the brow of Tony Weller, restaurant-designer supreme, it's a crazy melange of styles and themes. Downstairs, past the Gothic arches, the Mexican adobe walls and the garlic-festooned portals leading to the French Catholic vaults, youpass about a dozen other brutally-appropriated design statements. Madness, but it's got a lot of charm. The clientele is youthful and preternaturally cool - lots of hair-flickings, leather jodhpurs and startling decolletage. Brett Anderson from Suede reportedly hangs out here. Best place to sit is "The Chapel", a wonderfully snug, be-statued and candle-lit shrine that takes parties of up to 20 at a stretch. The choice of food is small and European, and gives the impression of having been thrown together, with indifferent sauces and overdone meat. But don't let me put you off. The BBB is just the place for hot trysts, rock'n'roll schmoozing and interesting hangovers. Open daily, 12.30pm-3pm, 7pm-10.30pm. Major credit cards SMITHFIELD Set down an alleyway from Charterhouse Square, Le Cafe du Marche, 22 Charterhouse Sq, Charterhouse Mews, EC1 (071-608 1609) is fantastically French, even down to the stratospheric hauteur of the waiters. Downstairs the decor is upmarket-auberge: exposed brickwork, large, chateau-style mirrors, ancient clocks, dusty foliage, lots of natural light illuminating a sexy display of fancy bottles. The combination of careless Frenchiosity and lightly-worn style is very appealing, and the place is always packed, mostly with business suits. There's a three-course prix fixe menu at £19.75, though I've often been unable to squeeze in a pudding. Oeuf sur plat aux epinards et jambon (fried egg on boiled ham on spinach) is a lovely starter, the size of a substantial breakfast; bagels filled with creme fraiche and herrings slightly less successful, and the size of a filling evening snack. Some recommend the duck confit with armagnac, some swear by the chateaubriand (inevitably it's the size of a gendarme) but I lost my heart long ago to the pot au feu maison, a dream team of shin of beef, tongue and chicken breast with hypnotically perfect root vegetables. The cheese board is a must, I'm afraid, and you'll leave the place feeling like (and as large as) Jean Gabin.

Mon-Fri noon-2pm, 6pm-10pm; Sat, 6pm-10pm. Access/Visa COVENT GARDEN Provided you score a table in the large dining room, and don't mind napkined media types going "Darling!" beside your table, Christopher's, 18 Wellington St, WC2 (071-240 4222) is the place for power dining, though it makes you feel you're being entertained by an aristocratic show-off, rather than welcomed by a seductive bon viveur. But it's undeniably impressive - the curving, pitted-stone staircase, the grand opera on the Tannoy, theclaw-like chandeliers, the stunning view over Waterloo Bridge. This former bordello has gone legit with a flourish. The food is sometimes disparaged as "Chris's bar'n'grill", because of the simplicity with which American-style rib-eye steaks, grilled fish and unadorned lobster are served up. But along with them come a little cellar of sauces, and the vegetables include celeriac mash, red cabbage with apples, and tobacco onions, all of which have become firm favourites. Steer clear, on the other hand, of the beef carpaccio and the risotto nero. The wine list is interesting, if pricey. The ladies' loo is apparently better than the one at Harvey Nichols.

Open Mon-Fri noon-2.30pm, Mon-Sat 6pm-11.30pm, Sun noon-3.30pm. All major credit cards accepted Although it disdains any trace of "theming", The Ivy, 1, West Street, WC2 (071-836 4751) breathes success; it's the place where, should the novel/ screenplay/six-part series be accepted, you hope your agent will take you, so you can wave at John Mortimer next door and the head fromage of Penguin Books two tables away. It's a light, airy room, with banquette seating (presumably for those professionally stuck with listening to other people's plots) and a complicated arrangement of tables so you never feel eavesdropped-on. The service is impeccably friendly and unflapped, while the co-directors, Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, drift about being murmurously suave with their regulars. The menu is a riot of strong flavours from all points of the compass - Oriental seafood, Irish oysters, Orkney scallops, Bang Bang chicken, Catalan bean soup, gnocci Carbonaro, corned beef hash, goose confit, Cumberland sausage, you get the picture - handled with the lightest of touches and simplest of accompaniments.

It's the kind of classy operation where, if you ordered the Hamburger with Mashed Neeps, they wouldn't turn a hair.

Open daily noon-3pm, 5.30pm-midnight. Major credit cards PORTOBELLO Down the Portobello Road lurk a couple of spectacularly Gothic eateries. For birthday outings that aspire to Beggar's Banquet-style decadence, it's hard to beat the First Floor, 186 Portobello Road, W11 (071-243 0072) with its entrancingly jungly function room where the cracks in the wall and the foliage that spreads all over the single massive table conspire to make you think that you're dining in a Dark Ages mead-hall. The impulse to eat everything with your hands and throw the remnants to packs of prowling wolfhounds is strong, but should be governed. The food is very expensive (£35 prix fixe for dinner, although there's a sumptuous brunch menu for £24.50) and seriously cosmopolitan: try the marinaded grilled lamb tostadas.

Mon-Sat 10.30am-4pm and 7.30pm-11.30pm, Sun noon-4pm and 5pm-7.30pm. Major cards Less determined Gothicists might find the Market Bar, 240a Portobello Road, W11 (071-229 6472) more to their taste. One floor up from the howlingly trendy Market pub, it's aplace where Aleister Crowley and Jean Genet might have swapped recipes for human flesh: dungeon doors, torture-chamber Moroccan chains, wrought-iron chairs, Castle Dracula candles, Rajahstani wood lattices, Samson-and-Delilah pillars. You expect to be given an aperitif of virgin's blood served in a ram's horn. The food, though, is rather polite and unadventurous - mussels, grilled artichokes, lamb's sweetbreads, huge but bland plaice fillets - but there's a good strawberry shortcake to finish. Its co-owner, the former (now resurgent) pop star John Leyton, might be prevailed upon to sing a few numbers.

Mon-Fri noon-3pm (noon-4pm w/end), Mon-Sat 7pm-11.30pm (last orders). Major cards

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