With just a touch of fraternity

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The Independent Culture
AS ANY linguist with an interest in politics will know, there is a vast difference in meaning between the German word Volk, as in Volkswagen - the "People's Car" produced under Adolf Hitler - and Volk in, let us say, Volkspalas - the "People's Palace" built under the Communist regime that now stands abandoned on the site of the old Imperial Palace at the end of the Unter den Linden in Berlin.

For the Royal Festival Hall in London to rechristen its largest restaurant The People's Palace is therefore a risk. We might start thinking of those who administer the arts on the South Bank as a dictatorship. We might also start thinking of ourselves no longer as sensitive Sunday newspaper- readers, but as workers - some hopes in my case - enjoying if not liberty, then at least fraternity and equality.

To help me in my research on the evening that we had supper there, my wife and I asked along an extremely glamorous titled person. Her first reaction was that the place was not unlike the VIP lounge at Heathrow Airport waiting for Concorde to take off, and within minutes she was on her feet embracing one of the racier members of the House of Lords. He had just slipped in, he said, to savour a few exquisite moments of a longer concert - advertised outside, if that is any clue to Festival Hall politics, as "Motorola Anne-Sofie Mutter" (all in the same typeface) - and was now going to have a proper dinner.

In the high, glass-walled vastness of The People's Palace there were, it is true, a few figures in check shirts or black leather jackets who could have been said at a pinch to represent The People, but members of the cultural elite were also threading their way in and out of the bar. When the Guardian's Old Etonian restaurant critic - a former pupil of mine, I am proud to say - made his entrance with two leggy lovelies, I realised there may have been some element of tongue-in-cheek, even of dry humour, in giving the restaurant its new name.

The wine-list may be the giveaway: under the heading "The People's White" there is house wine starting at pounds 9 a bottle, medium-priced whites at about pounds 30, and a Corton Charlemagne Louis Latour at pounds 85. The "People's Red" is flagged more modestly with a top price of pounds 65 for Nuits St Georges Faively, but there is champagne (Cristal 1988) as expensive as pounds 110. We had a bottle of Mount Pearl Sauvignon Blanc at pounds 14, then a bottle of Capital Claret, a French wine imported by the Wally Wine Company with a bold black- on-white London label, at pounds 12.50.

The personnel are so well-trained and obliging - the Italian wine waiter who arrived at our table offered us "a drink to get the taste buds flowing" - the head waiters so young and Hugh Grant-like, flicking wayward quiffs out of their eyes as they stride about in a commanding way, that you begin to wonder if they're not all actors fooling about. I checked on this, and the main head waiter denied it, saying he had been trained at the Ritz and (believe him if you will) that he had recruited most of his staff from Quaglino's, The Ivy and San Lorenzo.

There is, admittedly, a more populist element about the food. York ham with piccalilli is one of the starters, there is an open beef sandwich with fried eggs for the main course, and everything comes in pretty substantial helpings: as our acquaintance from the Lords had predicted, you get a proper dinner. Our own glamorous aristocratic guest said afterwards that she felt "jolly full", that it wouldn't have been very easy to have a light supper there, and that the food had been "the opposite of refined". I realised, looking back through the menu, that she had a point. There was, among the starters, an anchovy, herb and green leaf salad, but nothing else you could imagine Marie Antoinette merely toying with.

I had potato, bacon and parsley soup; the ladies both had smoked haddock fishcakes with a spicy tomato dressing. The other possibilities were crab mayonnaise, grilled goats' cheese crostini, or the York ham with piccalilli.

Unrefined it may well have been, but it was certainly delicious, and when we got on to the main course I began to realise that The People's Palace, at least in the first flush of its enthusiasm, is a very good restaurant indeed. I ordered the beef sandwich with fried eggs, which tasted as good as such a thing could: the eggs exactly right with the yolks warm and runny, the beef hot and rare and peppery, the toast underneath just sufficiently soaked with the juice of the meat to cut up into forkfuls.

My companions asked for the crispy roast pork belly and a mustard seed salad, and the almost simultaneous double offer of crackling I got as a result drove me into a near frenzy. I don't think I have ever eaten such good crackling in a restaurant.

Once again, music lovers looking for a refined little nibble in the interval might be daunted. The other main courses were pan-fried salmon on a French bean and sesame salad; baked cod with a parsley crust; Gruyere cheese, leek and onion flan; and chargrilled breast of chicken with soused cucumber and tarragon butter. There is also a good selection of vegetables, all at pounds 1.80 a helping.

Less sensitive spirits wanting a general anaesthetic before the second half of a Harrison Birtwhistle concert can, however, definitely rely on the puddings. The chocolate and pecan nut brownie, perhaps, or the plate of Shropshire Blue cheese, or possibly both. Restrained by our companion's good taste, we held back: she and my wife had the apricot and almond tart with clotted cream, and I had poached cinnamon pears with cheesecake cream. Both were in the alpha class.

Dinner for two of us, including a vodka and tonic to loosen the tongue of our three-at-a-table partner and two cups of camomile tea, would have cost pounds 66, the tip included.

Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 9XX. Tel: 0171-928 9999. Open every day, lunch and dinner: two-course menu pounds 10.50, three-course menu pounds 13.50; average two-courses a la carte, pounds 15. All credit cards accepted