THE 50 BEST PLACES TO EAT OUT IN BRITAIN

Which are the best restaurants for gourmet food in London and around the country? Which are the best places to eat out on a budget? In association with The Good Food Guide, Britain's most respected restaurant guide, The Information unveils the foodies' 50 favourites

THE GOOD FOOD GUIDE

This week's "50 best" has been compiled with the help of Jim Ainsworth, editor of The Good Food Guide 1999 (published by Which? Books, pounds 14.99, out now). The Good Food Guide rates restaurants based on the written reports of thousands of readers, backed up by anonymous visits from inspectors. The quality of food in each establishment is given a mark, with 10 being the highest score. For our 50 best, Jim Ainsworth selected restaurants for the food categories largely on the basis of these marks; restaurants in the wine category were selected by him from those restaurants that the guide recommends for the quality of their wine lists. Prices given are the average per head for a 3-course meal, including coffee, house wine and service charge; at "budget" restaurants, it should be possible to eat a 3-course meal for less than pounds 25.

Offer: Independent readers can save pounds 2 on the cover price of the Good Food Guide 1999. Send a cheque for pounds 12.99 to Which? Ltd, Castlemead, Gascoyne Way, Hertford SG14 1LH, quoting the code INGFG.

1

CAFE ROYAL, GRILL ROOM

This monument to 134 years of London's social life has taken on new vigour under the joint ownership of Marco Pierre White and Granada. Marco protege Spencer Patrick shares the master's penchant for foie gras and shellfish starters, but there is enough novelty to give the cooking an individual stamp, and he combines consistency and skill with a dash of flair. Service is formal and informative - and "they wore very nice aftershave," said one Good Food Guide reporter.

Where & when: Regent St, London W1 (0171-437 1177); Mon-Fri 12noon-2.30pm & 6pm-11pm, Sat eve only. How much: pounds 39-pounds 87

2

BRILLIANT

"The best Indian food I have eaten in a restaurant," insists one devotee. Specials such as vegetable keema augment the daily menu, though old favourites continue to draw praise: chilli chicken is "cooked tenderly", methi chicken has a "vibrantly spicy" fenugreek sauce, and aloo gobi "respects the texture of the potato and cauliflower". Rice is suffused with flavour, and sweets range from gulab jamun to ice-cream with mangoes.

Where & when: 72-76 Western Rd, Southall, Uxbridge (0181-574 1928); Tue-Fri 12.15pm-2.30pm, Tue-Sun 6.15pm-11.15pm, Fri & Sat to 12m't.

How much: pounds 18-pounds 36

3

THE CROSS

This converted Scottish tweed mill is a haven of calm. Tony Hadley provides "an easy, relaxed welcome", and the spacious dining-room and expansive tables are appreciated. Five-course dinners are well-balanced, and dishes look good. Native materials may be treated simply - wild salmon with sorrel sauce - or given a bit of a fillip, such as sliced duck breast with a sauce of sherry and soy. The 400-plus wine list is priced fairly, with around 150 bins under pounds 20, and around 70 half-bottles.

Where & when: Tweed Mill Brac, Kingussie (01540 661166) Wed-Mon 7pm-9pm. How much: pounds 43-pounds 51

4

CHURCHILL ARMS

The Churchill's pitch - a pub with food, not a restaurant with beer - means it stays open seven days a week, and can get busy. A relaxed approach sets the right tone. Owners Leo Brooke-Little and Sonya Kidney use properly reared meat and seasonal vegetables. Dishes range from parsnip soup and ham and eggs to more unusual scallops with curried potatoes and pancetta. The kitchen is equally at home with tuna steak and black olive pesto as with braised belly of Old Spot pork. "A lesson for every English pub," says one fan.

Where & when: Paxford, Glos (01386 594000); daily 12noon-2pm & 7pm-9pm. How much: pounds 20-pounds 36

5

LE MANOIR AUX QUAT' SAISONS

Raymond Blanc is one of Europe's outstanding chefs, and the Manoir has provided a fitting stage on which to perform. There is a seasonally changing carte with a mix of old Blanc favourites, but the Japanese theme is well established too. At its best the food can excite - indeed that is one of Raymond Blanc's strengths; the risks he takes give his food an edge that more classical exponents lack. Raymond Blanc welcomes children of all ages, and takes vegetarians seriously.

Where & when: Church Road, Great Milton, Oxfordshire (01844 27888); daily 12.15pm-2.15pm & 7pm-9.15pm. How much: pounds 50-pounds 140

6

MOSHI MOSHI SUSHI

Music tapes come round almost as often as the plates on the conveyor belt at this pioneer of kaiten (conveyor-belt gastronomy), which still offers sushi from pounds 1 a plate. There are tables where you can sit and order from the menu, but most of the fun is to be had perching on a stool watching the chefs at work, and grabbing colour-coded plates as they rattle past. Drink free green tea or order wine, beer or sake from the cheerful, relaxed staff.

Where & when: Liverpool St Station, London EC2 (0171-247 3227); 7-8 Limeburner Lane, London EC4 (0171-329 1160); Mon-Fri 11.30am-9pm. How much: pounds 13-pounds 30

7

ALTNAHARRIE INN

It may seem odd that one of Britain's best restaurants is the least accessible. It has no car park, no reception desk, no menu (it is spoken), not even mains electricity, making it the antithesis of the grand country house. Leave your vehicle in Ullapool and escape across Loch Broom in the launch. It shuns all pretension and is decorated with "restrained good taste". Gunn Eriksen is "the invisible chef" whose food is "greater than the sum of its parts". Service is "perfect", and executed in the most discreet and attentive way.

Where & when: Ullapool (01854 633230); daily 8pm-11pm, closed Nov to Easter. How much: pounds 77-pounds 98

8

VILLAGE RESTAURANT

Ros Hunter and Chris Johnson have been running their restaurant for 14 years. A commitment to quality organic produce cooked sensitively, and served at fixed times, remains firm. They have their loyal regulars, and also first-timers who come away feeling it is like dining at a friend's house. You are invited to browse around the basement shop where several hundred wines are stocked. A corkage charge is added.

Where & when: Ramsbottom, Gtr Manchester (01706 825070); Wed-Fri 12.45pm (1 sittings), Sat 12noon and 2pm (2 sittings), Sun 1pm and 3pm (2 sittings), Wed-Sat 8pm (1 sitting). How much: pounds 15-pounds 35

9

HILAIRE

"A lovely place to revisit," summed up one reporter. Although not all correspondents are agreed that we have the rating right. The food stays in familiar territory rather than going adventuring, but that doesn't stop it from being gently enterprising. A little native Welshness creeps into some dishes. Bryan Webb is "not of the school that skimps on ingredients". Service is smooth, friendly, attentive and efficient.

Where & when: 68 Old Brompton Rd, London SW7 (0171-584 8993); Mon-Fri 12.15pm-2.30pm & 6.30pm-11.30pm, Sat eve only. How much: pounds 35-pounds 60

10

SPREAD EAGLE

Choose what to eat in the lounge bar, before moving into a split-level dining-room with small tables and large picture windows. The aim is to serve "honest food at sensible prices"; chef Stephen Doherty makes use of Goosnargh duck, farmhouse Lancashire cheeses, Cumbrian bacon and air- dried ham, local black puddings and fish from Fleetwood. An early evening "beat the clock" system calculates the bill according to the time of ordering - but it doesn't apply at lunch-time. Service is smartly dressed and friendly.

Where & when: Sawley, Lancs (01200 441202); daily 12noon-2pm & 6pm-9pm. How much: pounds 14-pounds 32

11

THE SQUARE

The Square is "everything you want from a great restaurant," according to a reporter who was delighted with the "sublime cooking, fine service, brilliant wines and a good atmosphere in swish surroundings". It is elegant, relaxing and, for this part of London, "surprisingly unsnooty". Fish and meat feature among main courses, while starters combine shellfish girolles and a tomato butter sauce. Although dishes may sound ordinary, they leave reporters searching for superlatives. Desserts are no less appealing. Cheeses are French and in good condition. Service "never seems to be any hurry", and balances efficiency and friendliness.

Where & when: 6-10 Bruton St, London W1 (0171-495 7100); Mon-Fri 12noon-3pm & 6.30pm-10.45pm, weekends eve only (Sun to 10pm). How much: pounds 47-pounds 79

12

ISTANBUL ISKEMBECISI

"The tripe soup is a classic, although not all our party would try it," writes a regular who appreciates that this very popular restaurant is actually named after that dish. Most of the long list of meze are vegetable- based, with broad beans, humus, spinach, aubergine, yoghurt, courgettes and potatoes among the ingredients. There are also liver, meatballs, and taramasalata, even Atlantic prawns, a rarity in Turkey. Carnivores come into their own with a wide range of kebabs, grills and "traditional Turkish dishes". Desserts should not be missed. Service is helpful and "sensitive to our desire to have a long meal".

Where & when: 9 Stoke Newington Rd, London N16 (0171-254 7291); daily 12noon-5am. How much: pounds 17-pounds 29

13

FAT DUCK

This may not have the slickness and superficial veneer that some expect from highly rated restaurants, but the food does tend to stop people in their tracks. For one visitor, the sensual food is "like early Picasso", an expression of "one man's strange and fevered brain and its translation onto the plate". An understanding of the science of cooking underlies the operation, and most dishes seem to involve about three days' intricate planning and manufacture, but results are "very natural, with nothing tortured or forced". This is not a place for vegetarians. Given the quality, prices are very reasonable, and "there is nothing stiff or ma'amish" about the service.

Where & when: Bray, Berks (01628 580333); Tue-Sun 12noon-2pm (2.30pm Sun), Tue-Sat 7pm-9.30pm (Fri & Sat 10pm). How much: pounds 40-pounds 86

14

PIED-A-TERRE

The exterior is "oh so discreet", the monochromatic interior equally understated, yet it avoids the solemnity of some of London's classier venues. If the world outside is moving in the direction of simplicity, there is little sign of it in this kitchen. Tom Aiken's dishes are complex constructions. They put a contemporary spin on classical French cooking and test just how far an idea will go. In this quest, some dishes consist of variations on a theme, a "superb mix of textures and tastes" using top-drawer materials. Flavours can be bold.

Where & when: 34 Charlotte St, London W1 (0171-636 1178); Mon-Fri 12.15pm-2.15pm & 7.15pm-10.45pm, Sat eve only. How much: pounds 30-pounds 107

15

MR UNDERHILL'S

The location renders the name appropriate: a steep slope runs down from the castle towards a weir on a broad bend along the wooded banks of the River Teme. The custard-coloured house has a "light, airy" impression helped by bright modern paintings. There is no choice until dessert, but the menu is discussed when booking. "Everything is so simple, so classy," wrote one visitor. The pattern is three courses and coffee, with cheese as a possible extra, "in perfect condition", which comes with a basket of more "wonderful" bread. Service is "impeccably professional", and value is "outstandingly good".

Where & when: Dinham Weir, Ludlow, Shropshire (01584 874431); daily 7.15pm- 8.45pm (lunch by arrangement). How much: pounds 33-pounds 46

16

PENHELIG ARMS HOTEL

On the edge of Aberdovey, just across the road from where boats tie up in the estuary, this "good local inn" dates back to the 18th century. The "pub-style" presentation accords neatly with unpretentious dishes of mushroom pancake, dressed local crab, and fillet of beef Stroganoff. Chargrilling is applied enthusiastically, and with varying degrees of success, to anything from lamb steaks to tuna. Polite, well-informed and friendly staff keep everything running smoothly. The pedigree and variety of wines on the generously priced list are guaranteed to gladden the heart, opening with a fine selection from the New World and finishing in the traditional reaches of France.

Where & when: Aberdovey (01654 767214); daily 12noon-2pm & 7pm-9.30pm. How much: pounds 18-pounds 46

17

DESIGN HOUSE

A modern interior mixes glass, chrome and wood with a blue and orange colour scheme, while a short modern menu offers simple but appealing dishes of baked organic eggs with creamed mushrooms, or chargrilled calf's liver. Occasionally something bolder swims into view: two pieces of lightly battered plaice, served on couscous flavoured with garlic and coriander, on a puddle of chillied mango puree. David Watson's direct approach continues with desserts like lemon-curd rice pudding and plum mousse. It is good value, and staff are friendly and knowledgeable.

Where & when: Dean Clough Mills, Halifax (01422 383242) Tue-Fri 12noon- 2.30pm & 6.30pm-10pm, Sat eve only. How much: pounds 22-pounds 46

18

WATERSIDE INN

This is one of the country's most French of French restaurants in one of the Home Counties' most English villages. The appeal is the classical French food: "Technically, the dinner was a tour de force," says The Good Food Guide. The carte offers a good balance; the menu exceptionnel samples the range in five courses. Even at these prices it is striking how each dish justifies its cost. Luxuries appear in abundance and the cooking is confident. Service is a "well-oiled machine", and the wine list is a magnum opus, resolutely and classically French, but catholic in its repertoire.

Where & when: Ferry Rd, Bray (01628 620691); Wed-Sun 12noon-2pm (Sat & Sun 2.30pm), Tue-Sun 7pm-10pm. Cost: pounds 50-pounds 163

19

HARVEYS

A glass of sherry is probably the best way to get in the mood here. Harveys has been making and shipping it for centuries. The medieval wine cellars where they used to bottle it now look bright and modern with antique Bristol-blue bottles, colourful paintings, and large tables set with spotless glassware. Contemporary French cooking is the kitchen's preoccupation; menus change about six times a year. Soups are well reported - pumpkin with crab, or asparagus with a heap of brown shrimps in the centre - whilst roasting and pan-frying are the principal main-course treatments. Desserts make interesting use of fruit.

Where & when: 12 Denmark St, Bristol (0117-927 5034); Mon-Fri 12noon- 2pm & 7pm-10.30pm, Sat eve only. Cost: pounds 27-pounds 69

20

OAK ROOM MARCO PIERRE WHITE

The restaurant is "in the Meridien but not of it", according to one visitor. The menu mixes refined and complex starters with rich and often involved main courses, and "wonderfully excessive" desserts; it is "world- class" cooking. A la carte meals begin with a taster, typically a single sweet-tasting seared scallop with a puddle of squid ink and a pile of chewy deep-fried squid tentacles. "First-rate workmanship in the service of sensual delight," said one observer. Service is smooth, but has been considered "arrogant" and "going through the motions".

Where & when: Le Meridien Hotel, 21 Piccadilly, London W1 (0171-437 0202) Mon-Fri & 7pm-11.15pm, Sun eve only. Cost: pounds 49-pounds 186

21

VALVONA & CROLLA CAFFE BAR

This simple wooden hut is dubbed "a temple" by one reporter. Its spiritual home is Bologna. Here you can buy complete dishes to take away as well as most of the ingredients. The caffe is open for breakfast and lunch, plus dinner during the Festival. The danger lurking in its prima colazione is that of spoiling your appetite for lunch. Coffee is simply "the best". Main dishes in the piatti del giorno change daily. Antipasti always include home-made breads with virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. A noisy crowd enjoys the lunches despite a pace of service which is partly explained by the note that hot dishes are cooked to order.

Where & when: 19 Elm Row, Edinburgh (0131-556 6066); Mon-Sat 8am-3pm (during Festival, 6pm-10pm also). How much: pounds 20-pounds 34

22

CAFE JAPAN

The words "Casual Japanese Restaurant" on the front of the menu suggest that it is aimed at people off duty, so suits are rare. The young and mostly female staff are friendly, and the place is "spruce, clean and very relaxed". "This is an artist. Everything is done just so, sauces are all different, all perfectly matched," says The Good Food Guide of chef and proprietor Koichi Konnai. Sushi includes "fantastic, meaty, succulent, delicate and fragrant eel". Set meals run from grilled fish with miso soup, rice and pickles to dinners based on sushi or yakitori, and sukiyaki or its poached equivalent, shabu-shabu. Desserts are impressive.

Where & when: 626 Finchley Rd, London NW11 (0181-455 6854); daily 5.30pm-10.30pm. How much: pounds 19-pounds 47

23

WINTERINGHAM FIELDS

At first glance, thanks to various brick additions and extensions, it doesn't seem like a 17th-century farmhouse, but its "old age comes alive" inside. Germain Schwab's cooking is a mix of simple invention and great care with detail, delivering any amount of impressive flavours along the way. It is "characterful" food, sometimes with a dash of orientalism or a hint of the Maghreb. There is "total command" of "subtle but complex" saucing, spicing and flavour-balancing, which mixes familiarity with invention. "Outstandingly well judged" service combining friendliness and correctness is "as professional as you can get".

Where & when: Winteringham, Lincs (01724 733096); Tue-Fri 12pm-1.30pm & 7.15pm-9.30pm, Mon-Sat eve only. How much: pounds 31-pounds 83

24

FRENCH PARTRIDGE

The Partridges have been going for so long at this white-fronted house with "burnished copper" nameplate - they started in 1963 - that they don't so much follow trends as wait patiently for them to come round again. The intermediate course is not the boring old soup-or-sorbet routine either, but real food: typically a fish option such as grilled tuna with oriental spicing. This is one of four well-judged courses that make dinners such extremely good value. Despite forays into exotica, the cooking has the stamp of regional France about it. "I really enjoy drinking wine here because I know I'm not being ripped off," said one reporter.

Where & when: Horton, Northamptonshire (01604 870033); Tue-Sat 7.30pm- 9pm. How much: pounds 33-pounds 40

25

WALNUT TREE INN

This whitewashed country pub on the edge of Abergavenny is a jewel of imaginative cooking using the freshest ingredients. It is a hybrid in more ways than one, combining pub with restaurant, and Franco Taruschio's native Italy with his adopted Wales - expressed in a range of dishes from bresaola to Lady Llanover's salt duck. Hopeful unbooked diners queue before opening and soon fill the bar tables, sitting "buttock to buttock" with complete strangers. Curiosity about the food on someone else's plate breaks barriers, as well as an engaging simplicity exemplified by the outside loo. "Wonderful ingredients cooked with consummate skill and few frills," is Taruschio's appeal.

Where & when: Llandewi Skirrid (01873 852797); Tue-Sat 12.15pm-3.15pm, &7.15pm-10.15pm. How much: pounds 34-pounds 67

26

YORKE ARMS

Thick walls, flagstoned floors and bare wooden tables set the scene for some "really accomplished cooking", taking in Thai-spiced fish-cakes, a salad of black pudding with poached egg, and sweet-and-sour braised duck with oriental vegetables. "At last, somebody in Yorkshire knows what to do with tuna," ventured one visitor. The combination of first-rate ingredients, accurate timing and typical Yorkshire generosity was evident. Daily specials add to the variety, residents get their own set-price menu. "Open, honest" service is welcome for its lack of stuffiness.

Where & when: Ramsgill, nr Pately Bridge, Nth Yorks (01423 755243); Mon- Sat 12noon-2pm & 7pm-9pm, residents only Sun. How much: pounds 25-pounds 54

27

LOCH FYNE OYSTER BAR

Despite its large size, this "seafood brasserie" has a friendly feel to it. Staff radiate a "sense of community" and look as if they care about what they do. It is at the head of a sea loch which is the source of much that appears on the table. The aim is to serve fish and shellfish and is carried out with a commendable eye on the sustainability of resources. The emphasis may be on simple and uncluttered cooking, but that doesn't prevent Morag Keith from serving six oysters baked with spinach and Mornay sauce. One who sampled such a selection declared, "I've never had better".

Where & when: Clachan farm, Cairndow, on A38 at head of Loch Fyne (01499- 600264); daily Apr-Oct 9am-9pm, Nov-Mar 9pm-6pm. How much: pounds 21-pounds 46

28

ZAFFERANO

"Modern rustic" decor mirrors the food perfectly. This is a restaurant (now in its fifth year) with a sense of purpose, showing how prime ingredients can, with care and a degree of ingenuity, be made to sing. A generous menu deals in food that is light and satisfying at the same time. Don't worry that some of it may sound ordinary or simple; these are among dishes that have impressed. The "rustic" appeal shows in the kitchen's dexterity with often humble materials. Desserts are on a par for impact. Service has, on the whole, been efficient and friendly.

Where & when: 15 Lowndes St, London SW1 (0171-235 5800); Mon-Sat 12noon-2.30pm & 7pm-11pm. How much: pounds 30-pounds 61

29

RSJ

Nigel Wilkinson set up at the end of this well-converted Victorian terrace 20 years ago. Since then the area has changed. "Remarkably consistent, remarkably good value," said one visitor, "an invaluable South Bank restaurant" for after the theatre. Aim for the first-floor dining-room, where there's a generous and well-balanced carte offering modern dishes such as pot- roast sea bass with aubergine caviare and tapenade, and saddle of rabbit with risotto of lobster. The fixed-price lunch is singled out for its "imaginative and enjoyable" dishes. Service is "smiling".

Where & when: 13A Coin St, London SE1 (0171-928 4554); Mon-Fri 12noon- 2pm& 5.30pm-11pm, Sat eve only. How much: pounds 26-pounds 52

30

HELTER SKELTER

"It has the beatnik feel of a vegetarian cafe," a vegetarian reporter writes, adding, "but my carnivore companions were equally well fed." As well as "creamy" salmon penne, they could have chosen mussels with oriental sweet basil and tomato, or teriyaki roast duck. A board of specials adds to the menu, but it was a "rich, beautifully juicy" duck breast, and the accompanying leek mash and sweet-sour cabbage were commendable. The ambience is as informal and relaxed as one might expect from its location near Brixton market and service is "friendly and laid back".

Where & when: 50 Atlantic Rd, London SW9 (0171-274 8600); Mon-Thur 7pm- 11pm, Fri & Sat to 11.30pm. How much: pounds 24-pounds 43

31

GIDLEIGH PARK

On the edge of Dartmoor, this "imitation half-timbered" house is one of the most relaxing places to spend a few days. "If ever we win the lottery, we are going to stay here for a month while we decide what to do." Expect wood fires, comfortable chairs, oak panelling and a charming welcome: nobody feels like a poor relation. The food is "generally excellent, occasionally brilliant", as well as being "therapy for the stomach"; and Michael Caines cooks with a mix of power, skill and finesse. Luxuries are never far away, and truffles appear frequently on the menu. Cheeses tend to include some good local varieties, while desserts have been "stunning".

Where & when: Chagford, Devon (01647-432367); daily 12.30pm-2pm & 7pm- 9pm. How much: pounds 42-pounds 87

32

HOTEL DU VIN & BISTRO

"Dining at Hotel du Vin must be a bit like receiving the OBE," surmised one visitor, concluding that "what you remember is the whole day". Tables may be small and close together, but this is a bistro that punches above its weight. It is the sort of place that gives "simple cooking" a good name, with lots of salady starters and much roasting and pan-frying. Despite a change of chef, the Mediterranean retains a strong pull but doesn't tie the kitchen down. Tempura of cod with pommes frites (fish and chips, in other words) is indicative of the style, as are pea and Parma ham risotto.

Where & when: 14 Southgate St, Winchester (01962-841414); daily 12noon- 1.45pm & 7pm-9.30pm. How much: pounds 28-pounds 49

33

ANGLESEA ARMS

The Anglesea Arms is a traditional pub, and those prepared to put up with the smoke and noisy crowds are rewarded with excellent food. The very basic decor reflects Dan Evans's aim to provide "some of the joys in life without breaking the bank", and his cooking is based on a zealous enthusiasm for entirely fresh ingredients, especially fish, so the daily- changing blackboard menu is largely dictated by supplies. A catholic style takes in starters of summer shellfish minestrone, pigeon and foie gras terrine, and a Catalan-style chorizo, garlic and eel gratin. A dessert of "fabulous" lemon tart with "zinging" orange sauce was the high spot of one reporter's meal.

Where & when: 35 Wingate Rd, London W6 (0181-749 1291); daily 12.30pm- 2.45pm, Sun 1pm-3.45pm & 7.30pm-10.30pm. How much: pounds 20-pounds 35

34

CLIVEDEN, WALDO'S

The house, if we may use such a modest term, has acres of grounds and centuries of history - so it seems a bit odd to serve food of the calibre that Gary Jones cooks, in a small, dimly lit, though sprucely furnished, basement. The carte is sensibly limited to five choices per course, and although luxuries are de rigueur, there are no flashy flavour combinations. Gary Jones has cooked alongside Raymond Blanc and Michel Roux, and has obviously mastered the finer points of French haute cuisine. An inspector was "completely taken aback by the talent displayed in the cooking". Sauces are of "stunning depth and complexity"; fine flavours and textures also characterise desserts.

Where & when: Taplow, Berks (01628-668561); Tue-Sat 7pm-10.30pm. How much: pounds 63-pounds 103

35

GOLDEN DRAGON

Subtle wallpaper and a "classic" mural make this bustling place feel less frantic than some. The sheer range and variety of dim sum marks this place out from the competition: "meaty, sweet and tender" deep-fried squid, "heavenly" steamed scallop dumplings, "seductively slippery" char siu cheung fun, and "succulent" steamed spare ribs. The high proportion of Chinese customers in the evening suggests that the cooking of the full menu is of the same standard. One reporter appreciated "helpful advice from a polite, smiling waiter". The wine list is above the local standard.

Where & when: 28-29 Gerrard St, London W1 (0171-734 1073); Mon-Sat 12noon- 11.45pm, Sun from 11am. How much: pounds 29-pounds 46

36

CROQUE-EN-BOUCHE

Partly screened by tall trees, with only the name on the window to identify it, Croque-en-Bouche feels more like a private house than a restaurant. Wooden tables are neatly set with plain glassware, and bottle-stocked shelves (over 1000 wines to choose from; house wine from pounds 10) indicate the importance of drink to the enterprise - as much a wine business as anything. Dinner, served three evenings a week, varies from three to five courses for a set price. Marion Jones cooks, Robin Jones serves; because there are just the two of them, arrivals are carefully timed at intervals.

Where & when: 221 Wells Rd, Malvern, Wells (01684-565612); Thur-Sat eve only. How much: pounds 31-pounds 60

37

BROWN'S HOTEL, 1837

"Classical" applies equally well to both the decor and the very French food, which includes such luxuries as Beluga caviar, foie gras in a sweet Pacherenc jelly, and truffles in the chicken consomme - "refined and technically excellent" is a summary of the output. Service from formally dressed waiters was declared "uninterested" by one diner, "impeccable" by another. The leather-bound wine list runs to 50 pages, but sommelier John Gilchrist's real triumph is the provision of some 150 wines by the glass (from pounds 4; bottles from pounds 18).

Where & when: Albermarle St, London W1 (0171-408 1837); Mon-Fri 12.30pm- 2pm & 7pm-10.30pm; Sat eve only. How much: pounds 40-pounds 100

38

MELATI

As one reporter noted, genuine Malay/Indonesian restaurants are still surprisingly thin on the ground in London, so Margaret Ong's long-established venue, in the heart of Soho, is a real gem. The menu is long, flavours are bold, and portions are man-sized. Try a bowl of Singapore laksa, noodles, or one of the composite rice dishes, such as nasi goreng istimewa, with its skewers of satay, savoury chicken, slices of fried egg and pickles on the side. Weird and wonderful deserts include es kacang (red beans, mixed fruit, shaved rice and syrup).

Where & when: 21 Great Windmill St, London WI (0171-734 6964); Mon-Thur 12noon-11.30pm, Fri & Sat till 12.30am. How much: pounds 25-pounds 41

39

MIRCH MASALA

Behind the bright fascia, in one of the less prosperous sections of this long road, is a canteen-like dining-room with an open kitchen producing distinctively Pakistani cooking. A typical dish is lamb tikka, blackened to a crust but tender inside. Another fine "warmer" (their name for starters) is butter chicken wings in a subtle vegetable sauce. Non-vegetarian "steamers", or main courses, are either karahi, served in metal dishes, or deigi, in round-bottomed pots. Staff could not be more helpful. Vegetarians welcome the unusually wide choice, and low prices make it great value.

Where & when: 1416 London Rd, Norbury, London SW16 (0181-679 1828 or 765 1070); Tues-Sun 12noon-midnight. How much: pounds 11-pounds 24

40

CHAVOT

Minimalist rooms, with well-spaced tables, are "stylish, comfortable and modern", the perfect complement to Eric Chavot's cooking. Dishes include "large, juicy" roast scallops with cep risotto, langoustines with squid- ink tagliatelle, and red mullet with aubergine "spiced up Indian-style". It is a style, felt one reporter, that may nowadays seem to lack excitement, yet which is backed up by sound technique. Desserts prove the highlight for many; one praised an "amazing display of a piano, with keys alternating in pistachio and chocolate". Conclusion: "expensive but worth it."

Where & when: 257-259 Fulham Rd, London SW3 (0171-351 7823); Mon-Fri 12noon-2.30pm & 7pm-11pm; Sat eve only. How much: pounds 29-pounds 71.

41

MUSEUM STREET CAFE

This all-day cafe, by the British Museum, does early breakfasts and afternoon teas during the week, and brunches on Sundays. Though you can have scrambled eggs with smoked salmon for brunch, the menu is now almost exclusively vegetarian, and impeccably sourced: Valrhona chocolate goes into an unforgettable cake, vegetables are organic, and cheeses come from Neal's Yard. An inspector was struck by the authoritative use of herbs and spices that give life to even the simplest of dishes. A dozen wines are intelligently chosen (from pounds 9.50).

Where & when: 47 Museum St, London WCI (0171-405 3211); Mon-Sat 12noon- 3pm, Sun 11.30am-3.30pm. How much: pounds 22-pounds 35

42

RIVER STATION

The old river-police station, near the city centre, has been kitted out in walnut, marble, glass and stainless steel, and given a new lease of life. It now houses a deli and espresso bar serving snacks and cold food, and a main dining room, with a balcony overlooking the water. The menu concentrates on fish and vegetable dishes, with treats such as deep- fried crab cakes with sweet chilli sauce and pickled papaya, or salad of smoked eel and mustard leaves with lardons and poached egg; the artichoke broth was "just the sort of home-made thing that impressed for being tasty and not contrived".

Where & when: The Grove, Bristol (0117-914 4434); Sun-Thur noon-2.30pm & 6pm-10.30pm, Fri till 11pm, Sat eve only till 11pm. How much: pounds 21-pounds 50

43

RHODES IN THE SQUARE

Gary Rhodes's latest venture, on Dolphin Square, is a high-ceilinged room in midnight blue set off by sparkling chrome railings and port-holes: "like the grand ballroom of an ocean liner." Classics are re-invented in typical Rhodes style: ham consomme with featherlight pea pancakes, or "an impeccably made omelette" topped with lobster thermidor. Star of desserts is the British pudding plate, with a lemon-meringue tart, a bourbon biscuit and apple-crumble ice-cream. Excellent coffee, good breads and "faultless service", all contribute to its success.

Where & when: Dolphin Square, London SW1 (0171-798 6767); Mon-Fri 12noon- 2.30pm & 7pm-10pm, Sun till 9pm, Sat eve only. How much: pounds 33-pounds 84

44

SPIGA

Under the same ownership as Zafferano, Spiga is stark and brightly lit, with a bar along one side and a kitchen in the corner boasting a wood- fired oven. Bustling, noisy and "unacceptably smoky", it is not to everyone's taste, but the food is simple and fresh. Pizzas are huge and worth crossing town for, in one reporter's estimation, while meat options include sweet leg of lamb with aubergine puree and grilled red pepper. The coffee-cup dessert was singled out for "special praise". Staff are well-regimented but unsmiling.

Where & when: 84-86 Wardour St, London W1 (0171-734 3444); Mon-Wed 12noon- 3pm & 6pm-11pm, Thur-Sat till midnight, Sun 12noon-10.30pm. How much: pounds 23-pounds 40

45

BISTRO 21

This former farmhouse has been "beautifully restored". Craig Edmund arrived at the beginning of this year, but the style established by Terence Leybourne continues, with a generous carte of dishes ranging from Thai coconut soup via eggs Benedict to shepherd's pie. Additional delights include roast lobster with garlic butter and chips, and marinated pork steak with rosemary. Vegetables are charged separately. Desserts typically combine a fruity element - rhubarb and strawberry trifle - with a more indulgent one, such as warm chocolate tart with coconut ice.

Where & when: Aykley Heads House, Aykley Heads, Durham (0191-384 4354); Mon-Sat 12noon-2.30pm & 6pm-10.30pm. How much: pounds 22-pounds 48

46

VINEYARD AT STOCKCROSS

The vineyard referred to is several thousand miles away in the Napa Valley, which might explain the Californian approach. One visitor summed it up as "Savoy meets country club", reminding us that David Sharland used to cook at the Savoy Grill. The menu - modern, with a French bias - features a fairly consistent array of dishes, from crab risotto with "a nice texture" to pink pigeon breast with couscous and girolles. An international list of wines includes some rarely seen in the UK, and around 50 bins priced under pounds 20.

Where & when: Stockcross, Berkshire (01635 528770); Tue-Sat 12noon-2pm & 7pm-10pm, Sun lunch only. How much: pounds 46-pounds 97

47

LA POTINIERE

This might look like a village hall from the outside, but inside all is "quiet elegance", with a French provincial feel and just seven tables. Its "consistent cooking of the highest class at almost absurdly low prices" makes this "one of the great culinary bargains of Britain". Service from David Brown is relaxed and friendly. There is no choice, and portions are generous, but the four courses at lunch and five at dinner are "superbly balanced". Menus are constructed daily, often featuring old favourites, or variants on seasonal ingredients, and the culinary language throughout is French. Where & when: Main Street, Gullane, Scotland (01620 843214); Sun-Tue & Thur 1pm (1 sitting), Fri & Sat 8pm (1 sitting). How much: pounds 29- pounds 48

48

CHEZ NICO AT NINETY PARK LANE

Park Lane is a natural address for one of the UK's greatest chefs. The spacious dining-room, filled with "serious people from every continent", is well lit but allows a degree of intimacy. Though the food may be less daring than at other top restaurants, it is in a class of its own for consistency, and regarded by many as "perfection". Nico subjects both humble and luxury ingredients to his classical French techniques, with intense results. Service is formal: "You are made to feel like royalty," observed one couple.

Where & when: Grosvenor House, 90 Park Lane, London W1 (0171-409 1290); Mon-Fri 12noon-2pm & 7pm-11pm, Sat eve only. How much: pounds 54-pounds 140

49

WEAVERS

Weavers wears its tackle proudly, with bobbins dangling from the bar ceiling, and old photos in the dining-room. After 20 years, the Rushworths know their market well, and serve "hearty portions" of traditional British food, such as lamb shank with root mash, or Pennine meat-and-potato pie, helped along by trendier items such as an "upside-down" tart of Mediterranean vegetables. They deserve credit for not trying to make their food fussy or ambitious, and for taking care with essentials: producing a well-judged, boned and rolled shoulder of lamb that was "traightforward and tasty".

Where & when: 15 West Lane, Haworth, West Yorks (01535 643822); Tue-Sat 6.45pm-9.15pm. How much: pounds 22-pounds 42

50

THE CAPITAL

Although "unashamedly formal", The Capital is not in the least bit stuffy. Philip Britten's food features "simple, first-class ingredients perfectly cooked". A no-choice pounds 55 dinner menu, including jellied consomme, lobster mousse and honey-roast duck, won over one reporter, while the fixed-price lunch, with half-a-dozen choices at each stage, is considered a great bargain. Staff are knowledgeable and "extremely attentive", although the wine service has been criticised on more than one occasion.

Where & when: 22/24 Basil St, London SW3 (0171-589 5171); daily 12.30pm- 2.15pm & 7pm-11.15pm. How much: pounds 41-pounds 120

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