Low farce and high camp

CALIGULA: 21-22 Westmorland Place, Bromley BR1 1DS. Tel: 0181- 466 0738. Open daily from midday to 11pm. Three-course set menu, pounds 14.50. All major credit cards accepted

THERE IS something alarmingly Eurorespectable about Bromley, Kent, whose Churchill Theatre is the launch pad for our tour of Make Way for Lucia. This, reluctant as I am to plug my other life as a professional actor, is a comedy based on the Mapp and Lucia novels of E F Benson, in which I am playing Georgie, the closet heterosexual. Whole shop windows here are devoted to displays of reclining china pigs, china teddy-bears and puppies, and strolling through the Glades shopping mall you could be in Frankfurt.

The ladies have their hair done to buy their vegetables, and apart from Yum-Yum - an agreeable, old-fashioned greasy spoon in a corner of the red-brick palace that houses Bromley North railway station - and one noisy wine-bar called Henry's (specialising in blandish snacks), the restaurants seem largely to be extensions of the department stores.

Certainly the mood in Allder's self-service restaurant, above the H G Wells Coffee Lounge, is distinctly finger in the air, though reality did break in when one of the electronic check-out tills broke and a girl leaned across the exposed machinery to call to a colleague: "Doreen, have you got a pair of tweezers in your make-up bag?"

Caligula, therefore, comes as a bit of a relief. Just opposite the more functional Bromley South railway station it could be mistaken, from the outside, for a junk-shop. Standing in a bleak courtyard formed by high white office buildings it offers an open-air display of appalling old rubbish - a broken-down tricycle, bits of rusty piping and lengths of chain, broken weighing machines and part of an old canoe - among which there are a few battered tables and chairs apparently bought from an old church, with racks on the back for prayer books.

Under cover, pushed against windows cluttered with a surreal display of wonky lampshades and other tat, there is a row of horrible sofas - those covered in imitation zebra or tiger skin being the more restrained.

Inside, highlights from the Wonderful World of the Opera, Album Six are blaring out at near-painful volume, and there is more junk including an old brassiere hanging from the ceiling. The walls are covered with gaudy daubs and cut-outs and the cistern in the gents is sprayed with gold paint. My musician friend who took me there, a man given to understatement, described it as being "just this side of camp".

Having glimpsed the proprietor, a burly Turkish Cypriot with an intense manner and a rather belligerent charm, I'm not sure camp comes into it. Barking insanity would probably be nearer the mark. He has already opened a slightly less extreme Egyptian tomb at the other end of Bromley called Caligulette, and has plans for something more theatrical in Drury Lane. There is something about opera played very loudly that encourages heavy drinking, and we immediately ordered two bottles of the house white - Chateau Gourdibeau 1994 at pounds 8.75 - explaining that we would be joined later by more friends. The wine list accommodates all tastes and includes Chateau Margaux 1985 at pounds 65 a bottle.

What with the music and the atmosphere of near hysteria - one table in the corner as we arrived was occupied by a group of girls alternately exchanging whispered confidences and then shrieking with laughter - there is no great urgency on the part of the staff to take your order. You are brought a bowl of roughlychopped vegetables - peppers, cauliflower and carrots - a few slices of warm pitta bread and a bowl of what tastes like bulk-order fruit chutney, and left to shout above the music.

Some of the waitresses did not appear to speak English, grinning broadly if summoned and bringing more chopped peppers and bread and chutney. We eventually caught the eye of a waiter who came over and sat down at the table to take our order, a habit full of Eastern Mediterranean chumminess.

To start with I had the soup of the day, which was mushroom, and my musician friend had hummus, cacik (yoghurt and cucumber), and taramasalata. The menu is a long one, and other starters include oysters, baked avocado with crab, smoked salmon and grilled sardines. The food is definitely not bland.

I got the general impression that everything was slightly rough but definitely ready, although my soup was surprisingly good and unthickened and contained slices of fresh mushroom. My musician friend said the Turkish starters were fine.

For our main course I had duck with orange, and he had a "combination of moussaka and lasagne". Again, the choice was wide and all the helpings massive: there were various hairy chest-and-medallion specials such as big boss seafood selection, Caligula yoghurt and garlic pasta, kofte meatballs Turki or veal Milanese with spaghetti, but also more sophisticated things such as haddock with poached egg, lobster thermidor and boeuf Wellington.

Our main courses came with dishes of fresh vegetables, again perfectly all right, and both the duck and the pasta-moussaka mix were a great deal better than anything you'd get in Allder's or the very depressing buffet at the Churchill Theatre.

The big bonus then arrived, which was a bowl of fresh fruit - oranges, grapes, apples and a pineapple - thrown in free with set meals at lunchtime but otherwise pounds 3 and enough to feed a family. This was a good thing as my friend's glamorous opera singer wife then arrived with my Bromley landlady and her academic husband. We ordered a third bottle of wine, and any serious attempt to scrutinise the food went out of the junk-littered window.

They all seemed to order satisfactory main courses, some of the waiters by this time were singing along to the arias, the girls in the corner were weeping with laughter, and we might have been in a steamy holiday resort in Cyprus rather than opposite Bromley South station. Dinner for five of us, with the wine and without a tip, came to pounds 77.25. !

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