The 20 best restaurants for less than pounds 20 per head

High-class cuisine and exorbitant prices go together like oysters and champagne. Yet it is possible to eat extremely well for far less than you might think. Try these for starters...
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The Independent Culture
Chung Ying

London's Chinatown could learn much from the success of , progenitor of Birmingham's booming Chinese quarter. The vast and intriguing collection of true-to-original Cantonese dishes is translated into English (albeit approximately), there's a sizeable array of vegetarian dishes, and dim sum are served until closing time (sticking to tradition, no London restaurant will produce them after 6pm). On a midweek evening, the large, attractive dining room was full of non-Chinese business types and local families. Steamed pork pie with dried squid (pounds 7.50) was in fact a meat loaf, sliced at table without humour by a vigorous waiter. Steamed fish fillet with ham and bamboo shoot (pounds 7.80) was the star of the meal, a handsome display of fish slices, char siu (barbecued pork) and mushrooms surrounded by mange tout. Portions are large, making an inexpensive way to enjoy real Chinese cuisine.

PHIL HARRISS

16-18 Wrottesley St, Birmingham B5 (0121-622 5669). 12noon-11.30pm Mon- Sat; 12noon-11pm Sun. Set meals pounds 12.50 a head (minimum two) to pounds 16 a head (minimum six)

Daruma-ya

Occupies part of a refurbished warehouse overlooking the leviathan new Scottish Office in Edinburgh's revitalised dock area. Under a vaulted brick ceiling, the decor is minimal and modern. Set meals offer good value, but a la carte diners can still eat well for pounds 20 a head. To start, you might choose the roast aubergine doused in slightly sweet miso sauce (nasu- noshigiyaki), or a refreshing cold seaweed salad (hijiki). There are adventurous main courses including barbecued ox tongue (tan) and grilled salmon head (sake-no-okashira). Bowls of rice or noodles in broth are generous and warming. The New World wine list may be short, but the prices are sweet - nothing over pounds 8.50. Desserts include intriguing ice-creams (green tea or red bean paste) while the charming staff offset qualms about a 10 per cent service charge.

KEITH DAVIDSON

Daruma-ya, Unit 5, Commercial Quay, 62-64 Commercial St, Edinburgh EH6 (0131-554 7660). Lunch 12noon-2.30pm, dinner 6.30pm-late. Set lunch (Mon- Fri) f5. Set dinner pounds 10

Drum & Monkey

One of Britain's finest fish restaurants. There's always a queue at lunchtime, with a mix including elderly dowagers, tourists, and business folk, so it's best to go early or late if you haven't booked. Upstairs is more sedate. Main courses for lunch include an excellent poached sea-trout with asparagus hollandaise for just pounds 4.65. Starters range from half a dozen Pacific oysters (pounds 4.35) to prawn and spinach delice (pounds 2.45). The dinner menu is broader; there's an interesting monkfish dish with prawns in a bacon and tomato sauce (pounds 8.85). Puddings, from fresh fruits to sharp sorbets, are straightforward and give the palate a jolt. The Yorkshire stone building looks like an old pub, nowt fancy, and inside there are no frills either, just excellent food at sensible prices served with a friendly flourish.

STEPHANIE FERGUSON

Drum & Monkey, 5 Montpellier Gdns, Harrogate (01423 502650). Lunch 12noon- 2.30pm, dinner 7-10.15pm, Mon-Sat

Khazana

"Classic Bangladeshi cuisine" proclaims the sign painted on Khazana's large windows. It's not wrong. This well-turned-out newcomer (opened last May) has an intriguing choice of Bengali dishes rarely seen in Britain. Curry house ubiquities are demoted to a side column on the menu as nine fish dishes, plus a batch of unusual meat combinations (duck with onion and tomato; lamb's liver with cumin) take centre stage. There's a tendency to heaviness in some sauces - mali bagun (aubergines in saffron, cream and onions, pounds 5.75) suffered from it. But deft spicing in the shorisha maach (chunks of fish with ground mustard seeds, pounds 7.90) and uuri niramish (broad beans, pounds 3.25) sweep away misgivings. Bangladesh is also famed for its sweets, and Khazana has several, including morobba (pumpkin in spicy syrup, pounds 3.25). A clientele of north Oxford worthies and well-dressed younger couples are waited on by the smart staff (women in saris). The wicker and cane colonial look holds sway in both the ground-floor dining room and upstairs bar.

PHIL HARRISS

7 South Parade, Summertown, Oxford (01865 59653). Lunch 12noon-2.30pm, dinner 6-11pm, Mon-Sat. Set lunch pounds 8.50 (four courses), set meal pounds 2O (five courses)

Mandalay

Mandalay doesn't look like much - it's a small shop unit on an ugly stretch of the Edgware Road - but step inside and be charmed by the Ally family's remarkable Burmese cooking. Burmese cuisine has much in common with that of its neighbours India and Bangladesh, but it doesn't use the key spices such as cloves, cinnamon or cardamom. Instead there are south-east Asian flavours such as lemongrass, fresh coriander and galangal (Siamese ginger). Mok hin gar (pounds 5), the Burmese national dish, is a huge bowl of rice vermicelli topped with a thick sauce made from giant catfish that has been cooked to a pulp. There's also a score of interesting dishes for vegetarians too. Main course dishes cost from pounds 3 to pounds 5.90, and the set lunches are a steal.

GUY DIMOND

Mandalay, 444 Edgware Rd, London W2 (0171-258 3696). Lunch 12noon-3pm, dinner 6-1lpm, Mon-Sat. Closed Sunday. Set lunches pounds 2.90 (one course), pounds 4.90 (three courses)

Melbourne's

Set in a distinguished-looking building just up the hill from Broad Quay, this bustling bistro allows you to bring in your own wine at no extra cost, despite having its own perfectly adequate list. The interior is simply decorated, highlighting the raison d'eat: the food. The cooking has a few Oriental and Mediterranean flourishes, but mostly it's dependable Anglo-French fare. There are several starters, around a dozen main courses and up to 10 puddings on the set menus. Daily specials are on a blackboard. Starters include a brochette of duck with a spicy peanut sauce, fillet of trout with horseradish mousse, or two types of marinated mushroom. Main courses are the usual roll-call of sirloin steak and roast lamb, plus a few non-meat dishes such as pancake-filled ratatouille, all accompanied by perfectly al dente vegetables. Desserts include white and dark chocolate mousse, treacle tart, cheeses and sometimes a wintry sticky toffee pudding.

GUY DIMOND

Melbourne's, 74 Park St, Bristol (0117 922 6996). Lunch 12noon-2pm Tue- Fri; 12noon-2.30pm Sun. Dinner 7-10.30pm Mon-Sat. Set lunches pounds 8-pounds 11.50. Set dinners pounds 13.50-pounds 15

L'Odeon

Bruno Loubet's slick metropolitan canteen is one of London's newest and most fashionable places to eat. It's also a testament to what culinary skills can be procured for under pounds 20 a head, if you avoid peak times. Most evenings of the week it's easy to spend double that, but we took advantage of the Sunday lunch, currently one of the capital's best value meals. A punnet of two types of wonderful bread fill the gap while you ponder the several choices at each of the three courses. Starters might include potted shrimps in herb butter elevated by a brioche base and topped by a french bean salad; pungent ceps sandwiched in carrot-coloured wafers of lasagne might be another option. Main courses include char-grilled salmon on a big bed of spinach, spit-roast chicken with fresh pasta and tarragon jus, or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (not many takers for this on last Sunday's visit). Desserts range from the dainty to the stolidly British, including some divinely pungent morsels of British cheese. Presentation of the dishes is superb; our only quibble was with the sluggish service.

GUY DIMOND

L'Odeon, 65 Regent St, London Wl (0171-287 1400). Lunch 12noon-3pm, dinner 5.30pm-12mdn't, daily. Set lunches pounds 14.50 (two courses), pounds 17.50 (three courses). Pre-theatre menu (served 5.30- 7pm Mon-Sat) pounds 14.50 (two courses), pounds 17.50 (three courses). Set Sunday lunch pounds 16.50 adults, pounds 8.50 children (three courses). All prices including pounds 1.50 cover charge, but excluding 12.5 per cent service

The Ratcatchers

Norfolk is blessed with some admirable pub-restaurants, and the Ratcatchers is a peach among them. Local ingredients are prominent; meat arrives well hung by the local butcher, vegetables are grown in the surrounding area, and herbs come from the pub garden. Eat either in the bar, with its open fire, or in the no-smoking restaurant - both are devoid of pretensions. The specials list may start with a tempura of prawns (pounds 5.25); main courses could be chicken breast stuffed with crab (pounds 9.25) or baked haddock (pounds 8.85). Puddings range from tiramisu (pounds 3.45) to apple and blackberry crumble (pounds 2.95). Devil-may-care diners (and the immediate families of Government ministers) should try the excellent steak and kidney pies (pounds 6.95). You're likely to get lost looking for this isolated pub, but that's part of the fun.

PHIL HARRISS

Eastgate, nr Cawston, Norfolk (01603 871430). Lunch 11.45am-2pm Mon-Sat; 12noon-3pm Sun. Dinner 6.45-10.15pm daily

Terre a Terre

A pleasant vegetarian cafe strategically placed near Palace Pier and the Lanes. Drop in for a drink and a snack, or there's a daytime menu of simple dishes such as tortilla with chips, or rarebit. But it's the evening menu that's most interesting. The indecisive might consider a "tapas" selection of the day's starters (pounds 7.50 for two people). Main courses are substantial, such as the twice-baked "fondue" souffle for pounds 6.95, or "piled high Shanghai noodles" (three types of rice noodles with shredded vegetables in a miso broth, pounds 6.80). Side orders include rosti with five types of topping (pounds 6). Puddings (apple charlotte, chocolate praline mousse) cost pounds 3.95 and there's a good selection of organic wines.

GUY DIMOND

Terre a Terre, 7 Pool Valley, Brighton, E Sussex (O1273 729051). Open 6pm-12mdn't Mon; 12noon-10.30pm Tue-Sun

Wagamama

The new branch of the absurdly popular Japanese-themed noodle bar hasn't yet been inundated with groovy young things prepared to queue around the block for their ration of ramen. This makes for a much more relaxing experience. The brightly lit bargain basement is clean, minimalist and comparatively spacious, reminiscent of a swimming pool changing room. There are new Japanese dishes, such as several types of teriyaki (little kebabs) and yakitori (deep-fried titbits in a very light batter, served with a dip). Expect to pay up to pounds 17 a head with a Japanese beer and no desserts (there aren't any).

GUY DIMOND

10a Lexington St, London W1 (0171-292 0990). 12noon-11pm Mon-Sat, 12noon- 10pm Sun

Bridge House Hotel

Low, beamed ceilings and a dining room opening onto a conservatory provide the setting for Jacky Rae's skilful cooking at this small country hotel. The fixed-price, regularly changing dinner menu offers seven starters and eight main courses, plus a choice of puds or cheese. A few dishes carry a supplement, but not the smoked duck breast salad (a starter); pancakes filled with spinach, mushrooms, Brie and pine kernels; or hare braised in red wine. Canapes come with dinner.

PHIL HARRISS

3 Prout Bridge, Beaminster, Dorset (01308 862200). Lunch 12noon-2pm, dinner 7-9pm daily. Set lunches pounds 10.95 (two courses), pounds 12.95 (three courses). Set dinner pounds 17.95 (three courses)

But 'n' Ben

Couthie Scots country cooking served up in old fishermen's cottages. Most of the seafood is caught locally - smoked mackerel pate with bannocks costs pounds 2.80, while Arbroath smokie, hot and buttered, costs a mere pounds 5.10. The high-tea menu is just the thing to warm you up after a pebble-hun along Auchmithie beach.

GUY DIMOND

Auchmithie, nr Arbroath, Tayside (01241 877223). Lunch 12noon-2.30pm Mon, Wed-Sun. Tea 4-5.30pm, dinner 7-9.30pm Mon, Wed-Sat

Jigsaw

Bargain bistro where a tenner buys you a choice from four starters, five mains and four puds. The menu is built around simple but well presented constructions such as daube de boeuf or vegetarian pancakes. A pounds 2 supplement brings five more dishes, including bouillabaisse into the equation. From 14 April, the bistro will become a brasserie on Sundays, opening from midday to 1l pm. Young Shepherd's Bush folk flock here.

PHIL HARRISS

74 Askew Rd, London W12 (0181-743 8002). Lunch 12noon-3pm, dinner 7- 1lpm, Tue-Sun. Set meal pounds 9.95

Punch Bowl Inn

Bet that Crosthwaite doesn't Roux the day last year when Steven Doherty, a Gavroche-trained chef, took over the village boozer. Now the kitchen produces such delicacies as fillet of salmon with leek fondue and red wine sauce (a mere pounds 6.50) and lamb persillade with garlic and parsley breadcrumbs and a grain mustard jus (pounds 7). Puds are similarly elaborate: floating island (pounds 2.50) involves poached meringue wobbling on a caramel and almond custard. Even wines are a snip.

PHIL HARRISS

Crosthwaite, nr Kendal, Cumbria (01539 568237). Lunch 12noon-2pm, dinner 6-9pm. Set meal (Sun only) pounds 7.95 (two courses), pounds 9.95 (three courses)

Red Lion

The flint cottage exterior of the Red Lion hides a bright main bar with wood-burning stove, and a no-smoking snug. The menu embraces bar snacks and unfussy Norfolk cooking. Perhaps start with Morston moules mariniere (pounds 2.95) and follow with spicy baked crab salad (pounds 5.25) and treacle tart (pounds 2.50). Vegetarian dishes are often enticing. Chips and piped music are banned.

PHIL HARRISS

Upper Sheringham, Norfolk (01263 825408). Lunch 12noon-2pm, dinner 7- 9pm daily

Royal Oak of Luxborough

Venerable country pub within Exmoor National Park, where exemplary country cooking is served in the evening: venison casserole (pounds 8.95), or own-made game pie (packed with local wildlife, pounds 7.25). Fish on Fridays could be scallops in cream and dill sauce (pounds 9.25). Drink in the list of 33 wines, or plump for the farmhouse cider.

PHIL HARRISS

Luxborough, nr Watchet, Somerset (01984 640319). Lunch 11am-2pm, dinner 7-10pm

Seguendo di Stagioni

Wales meets Italy in Aldo Steccanella's kitchen, where Welsh onions might grace the pasta sauces and sewen could be paired with fresh basil for a main course. Ciabatta with roasted peppers, anchovies and garlic (pounds 2.99) might kick off a meal from the seasonally changing menu, chocolate semifreddo (pounds 3.50) complete it. Cooking constantly belies the modest setting. Wine's great too.

PHIL HARRISS

Harford, Pumpsaint, Llanwrda (01558 650671). 12noon-2.30pm Sun, 7-10pm Wed-Sun

Ubiquitous Chip

The Chip is in two parts (downstairs cheaper), with Scottish ingredients to the fore. Plaice in a Howgate cheese sauce (pounds 9.85) is one of the simplest and most successful dishes, while the complexity of other concoctions is almost perverse. Wines are a forte.

GUY DIMOND

12 Ashton Lane, Glasgow Gl 2 (0141-334 5007). 12noon-11pm Mon-Sat; 12.30- 11pm Sun

The Valvona & Crolla Cafe

One of the UK's finest Italian delis and wine merchants branches out into the cafe/bar business this Monday. Light meals, snacks, cakes and desserts will be served in premises at the rear of its shop. For an extra corkage charge you can even buy any bottle off the shelf to accompany the food.

KEITH DAVIDSON

19 Elm Row, Edinburgh EH7 (0131-556 6066). 8am-5pm Mon-Wed, Sat; 8am- 7pm Thur, Fri

Windmill

Bread is baked in the kitchen from flour milled in the windmill across the yard. Menu changes every six weeks: pear and walnut salad with Stilton croutons, followed by cheese and oatmeal roast with mushroom sauce (pounds 12.95). Marmalade and ginger pud currently figures.

PHIL HARRISS

46 High St, Burgh le Marsh, Lincs (01754 810281) 12noon-1.45pm Sun, 7- 9pm Tue-Sat

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