Where liquor isn't booze : EATING OUT

MANZE 87 Tower Bridge Road, London SE1 4TW. Tel: 071-407 2985. Open for lunch only, Monday 11-2; Tuesday-Thursday 10-2; Friday 10-2.30; Saturday 10- 3. Average price, £1.85 per head
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The Independent Culture
DRIVING across Tower Bridge in the rain just before lunch between the Conran Pont de la Tour and the same proprietor's Gastrodome on Butler's Wharf is probably not the best preparation for eating at Manze, a mile or so further down Tower Bridge Road.

Thoughts of luxury occur, images of dark-suited young executives with their ties loosened lounging at perfectly tended tables, talking out of the side of their mouths into tiny mobile telephones amid the steam of exquisite steak-and-kidney pies, watched by waiters in floor-length white aprons while doors thud open and shut on gleaming kitchens.

You grit your teeth and press on, leaving that world behind as if crossing a phantom checkpoint between West Berlin and the old East. As in Berlin, it seems like travelling into the past - under a grim railway bridge, past a green-painted sign for The Cat and Cucumber Cafe, on to a row of sagging shop-blinds glinting in the wet, with market stalls outside in the gutter and a greengrocer's that spills out on to the pavement, and finally, Manze.

The newsagent's next door has a board in the window advertising Busty, Sexy or Starlet Masseuses, and one, less romantic, who is billed as "Older Masseuse - No Rush".

Manze itself is billed in the phone book as a caterer's, but it is the kind of pie shop sought out by film directors looking for the London George Orwell was Down and Out in. There are memories of Italy in the worn marble- chip floor, but the rest is authentic knees-up Italian Cockney.

The walls are tiled in green and white squares, with subtler fillets of brown and black tiles framing the dado; there are Edwardian pattern flower-tiles in pink, and large plain mirrors in wooden frames that, according to my scenery-painting stepdaughter who notices these things more than I do, are screwed into the wall. At the back is a faded photograph that looks like a still from The Godfather, presumably of the original proprietor.

The tables are plain marble slabs, the seats high-backed wooden benches with rusty wrought-iron supports. My stepdaughter commented on the absence of old-style Cockney character actors with broken noses and cauliflower ears; most of the clientele were young labourers in jeans and leather jackets, with one or two family parties. No one seemed to take their overcoats off, presumably, as the old comedian used to say, because they weren't stopping. Unlike the older masseuse advertised next door, Manze does not encourage you to hang about.

A small notice warns: "Only food and drink bought from this shop to be consumed on the premises".

You collect your food from a high counter where you are served from hot pans by a row of faintly alarming ladies in green uniforms. Those who were not working sat on a kind of substitutes' bench, arms folded, some chatting away in an English that still had the faintest trace of Italian. Behind the counter is a price-list which includes "1 pie with 1 mash", "1 pie with 2 mash", "2 pies with 2 mash", and so on.

I tried to get my stepdaughter to have jellied eels as a starter, but she refused, so I ordered stewed eels and was asked it I wanted them with liquor. I am so irretrievably toffee-nosed that I thought liquor meant booze, of which there was none in evidence. Actually, as everyone but me clearly knows, it is a kind of white sauce or gravy, and I got it over my eels before I had a chance to reply.

Eels in Holland, poached to the consistency of soft white brains, can be delicious, and smoked eel at Simpson's is very good. Stewed, with liquor poured over them, I suppose they could be described as sustaining. The spine and odd bones take a bit of picking out, after which there is not a great deal left. They cost £l.85, which compared with the rest of the menu is quite expensive.

For our main course we both had the only alternative, pie and mash. There is what seems to be a traditional method of serving the mash, reminiscent of a bricklayer applying cement, where a dollop is slapped on the plate and then smoothed off flat where it reaches the edge. This dish, too, comes with the liquor.

On every table there is a big canister of salt and a big canister of pepper, as well as a gigantic bottle of vinegar, and I made the mistake of adding salt before my stepdaughter could warn me, making a rueful joke about whether I wanted more potato with my salt. It is true that the mash was already well salted.

I regretted afterwards not having tried it with vinegar: it's always very good with fish and chips, and must, I suppose, be a Cockney condiment that has got lost in the rush for astronomically expensive Eurofood.

The pie, small and oblong with a crusty brown lid, was perhaps a little samey in the way of chunks of unidentifiable brown meat compared with the ingredients available at Butler's Wharf, but for £1.70 I thought it was very good value.

Similarly the tea. With fresh bags mashed in the pot, it came out dark orange and very good at 15p a cup.

It would be a pity if Manze turned into a tourist trap, but I'd recommend it, if only as part of the Authentic London Experience.

Lunch for two of us came to £4.55.