Tristan Quinn suggests Seven kebab houses to eat in - even when you're sober

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dormant by daylight, London's kebab shops come alive at night. For the post-pub urban chancer there's nothing like risking a kebab to complete the evening; a pitta bread packed full of steaming meat and salad topped with nuclear chilli sauce seems to sit so well on a stomachful of lager.

It can be a volatile mixture. "It's really mad at nights and sometimes you can cut the atmosphere with a knife," says Frank Saglam, son of the proprietor of the Golden Grill Coffee Shop Kebab Restaurant, 20 Camberwell Green, SE5, fingering the kebab carver.

But there is more to the kebab experience than ugly scenes and the crass generalisation of Harry Enfield's Greek kebab man Stavros. The modern London kebab is a hybrid of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian origin, offering a rich range of taste sensations to the adventurous.

So when did it all start? Legends abound: it is said that Ghengis Khan fed his troops kebabs cooked on huge fires and that a Turkish shop opened in Haringey as early as 1960. Others insist that the first was in Dalston in 1973. The jury is still out on the million-doner question.

There is less controversy about what makes a good kebab. In a doner (Turkish for revolving), moulded out of a cheap lamb and beef mixture, look for a dark, well-cooked colour - greyness denotes a lengthy spell in the kebab machine - and price. Too cheap, say under pounds 2 for a small serving, will yield an unsatisfying amount of slices.

Chilli sauce should be strong with tang and aftertaste, though not phlegm- inducing. Shish kebabs - whether lamb or chicken - are more fresh and flavoursome, take longer to prepare but tend to be worth it.

With so many outlets in London, kebab eating could quite easily be left to spur-of-the-moment gut feelings. But to avoid the possibility of disappointment here are a few which are a cut above.

Camberwell's Golden Grill has been selling Turkish kebabs, coffee, beer and wine since 1977. Beyond the takeaway counter is a small restaurant currently decorated with posters of New York, soon to be replaced with repro oil paintings. "We change the pictures over every six months so that the regulars don't get bored," says Saglam.

The Grill is open until 3am and serves alcohol (beer pounds 1.25 a bottle, wine pounds 5 a bottle) until midnight, making it popular with the young funsters from the disco pub next door. Eat in prices average around pounds 3.50.

The narrow shop front of Marathon, 87 Chalk Farm Road, NW1, belies the mythical status of this Greek doner house among the kebab cognoscenti. Good shish (small lamb pounds 2.30, large pounds 3.20), tables and chairs, late opening (daily until 3am) and - crucially - beer (pounds 2 a can), is a winner with the Camden jetsam.

And it pulls the stars, too. A friend tells me that she met Mani from the Stone Roses and the bass player from the La's here, abusing the in- house guitarist who nightly plays rock 'n' roll classics for the kids.

But there are drawbacks. Surly staff rigidly enforce a "no eat, no drink" policy. Getting thrown out is a real possibility. So arrive early and blend in as the crowds of drunks arrive.

Just a kitchen and a simple service hatch opening onto the street, Diamond Kebab, on the corner of Seven Sisters Road and Green Lanes at Manor House, N8, is a high quality doner vending machine catering for tube commuters.

Flanked by two other shish 'n' chip shops, Diamond survives by offering tasty, substantial kebabs in a hurry. Prices are fairly standard (small doner pounds 2, large pounds 2.50) but the free burger relish is a real bonus.

Paradise Cottage, 477 Bethnal Green Road, E2, is a workhorse supplier. Don't be put off by the lurid kebab photos above the counter - they bear no relation to what is sold here. For a few doners more try the paradise special (pounds 4.50), a healthy mix of lamb and chicken shish and kidneys.

Sargan 2 found, unsurprisingly, at 89 Upper Street, Islington, N1, offers an upmarket carry-out doner. The staff wear ties and waistcoats and prepare mildly-spiced Kurdish kebabs in a kitchen decked out with flowers. Special features include garlic sauce and cheap prices (small chicken doner pounds 2.10).

The Shahi Nan Kabab, 6 Trinity Road, Tooting Bec, SW17, raises the game by offering shish in an Indian style flavoured with garam masala and coriander. "Lots of our customers go back 20 years because they can't get the taste anywhere else," says shop manager Mammohan Sharma.

House speciality is the seekh kebab (small pounds 1.60, large pounds 2.25) - curried lamb chunks served with salad in paratha bread. The unfolding three-dimensional taste sets a new standard: previous kebabs are dulled by comparison.

London as a rich kebab city was definitely done a disservice by "Hello every bod peeps". Saglam says: "When people used to say it we'd just smile and think how wonderfully funny it was." He brandishes the kebab knife again. I look for the irony: it's there.

Emily Green is on holiday