Restaurants; Where shall we meet ... in Theatreland?

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I had my first cappuccino at Brown's in Oxford somewhere around 1978. Hard to believe, but cappuccino was as new on the British scene then as flavoured latte is now. I was only a schoolkid, and I asked for it black, something I didn't live down with my more sophisticated mates for some months.

In those days, Brown's, newly opened after a successful launch in Brighton, was the height of student chic, and something of a breakthrough in British provincial dining: a place where you could get pasta without having to talk Italian or keep your elbows off the table. Back then, the most popular thing on the menu was the pasta special, where they gave you dollops of two different sauces on the same plate.

Twenty years on, and Brown's is a chain. Entering its Theatreland branch in an old magistrate's court (the courtrooms are still intact upstairs and available for private hire) on St Martin's Lane, in London is an eerie timewarp experience. The cream walls, the wooden tables, the potted plants: everything is just as it was in my teens. It's huge, seating 320 at a pinch, crammed and booming with talk rather than music. Good-looking staff (employed for looks back then and seemingly still so now) run around like people trying to save their belongings in a fire. There's only one difference: the British as a nation have come on a bit on the food front, and the menu has changed. The only thing I still recognise is the steak, mushroom and Guinness pie, something I spent a lot of university evenings watching slide down the gullets of many a young man who went on from being simply stocky to being a stockbroker. Back then, we had maximal calorie intake for minimal fiscal outlay obsessions. These days, we've got health and pesto.

Actually, you can combine health, pesto and cheap these days. Many restaurants and brasseries around the West End have pre-and post-theatre menus for people on the run who also want something more than a sandwich. At Brown's there is a good value meal at pounds 9.95 for two courses between 4pm and 6.30pm or between 10pm and midnight. Besides the pie, there is a broad choice of bistro food: excellent venison carpaccio, duck liver parfait, roasted red peppers, or a fish of the day, calves' liver with mashed potato, and chargrilled pretty much everything with fat chips. Puds are of the nursery food variety: sticky toffee pudding, chocolate brownie and ice-cream, bread and butter pudding. I would opt for the late-night option. After two of their enormous courses, the only thing you'll do in the theatre is sleep.

Brown's, 82-84 St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (0171-497 5050)