Restaurants ; Supper at The Cow, a meeting place for the young and beautiful; If I'm honest, the signs weren't great from the start - they could squeeze in four, but only if we were prepared to share a table, arrive at 7.30 pm on the dot and leave by930
Tom Conran doesn't open restaurants at quite the same pace as his father, Terence, but the signs of nascent empire-building are there. First, there was his oyster bar by the Conran Shop, then came Tom's, the posh-but-not-stuffy-no-way-brother deli on Westbourne Grove, west London, which does nice take-away food at horrid prices. (I suppose it's all part of the Conran ethos of putting the thrill back into eating - the thrill being the suspense of not knowing whether your heart will finally give out as they tally up the total of your sun-dried tomato focaccio and pate.)

Anyway, since April, Conran the Younger has also been logging into the current trend for converted pubs. The Cow is a 30-seater restaurant upstairs and a kind of jolly old Irish pub underneath. At least, it's what Londoners and BBC's drama department imagine Irish pubs to be. The staff don't actually begorrah, begorrah around the place, but it's all broody-looking lino floors, painstakingly mismatched wooden chairs, glistening aubergine paint and hot and cold running oysters. It could be wholly authentic for all I know, except that it's on a grimy, far-flung bend of Westbourne Park Road, close to the bus depot, an olive stone's throw from the M40 fly- over and opposite the Westbourne - you've guessed, another converted pub. It all adds up to an irresistible location for those whose spiritual home is boho Notting Hill even if their real address is more, er, Muswell Hill, actually, combining as it does good scuzz factor with the reassuring knowledge that you're only 30 seconds from fabric designer Celia Birtwell's shop and Crucial Trading, the place to get your coir matting.

If I'm honest, the signs weren't great from the start. Upstairs, the Cow operates on a two-sittings-a-night-fixed-menu basis, not that you'd glean anything as useful as this when you try to make a booking. Friday was out, the voice on the phone droned, "because we've got A Party from Select Records in". After some Morse-style investigation, it turned out that they could squeeze in four, but only if we were prepared to share a table, arrive at 7.30 pm on the dot and leave by 9.30. Chances were marginally better on Wednesday (chances? what was this - the last plane out of Bosnia?) "but why not try another night..?" "Why?" I asked, brightening pathetically at the unexpectedly humane touch. "Do you have more flexible times?" No, was the gnomic response, it was just a suggestion.

I'm not crazy about 7.30 or 9.30. Still, 7.30 it was - a big mistake this, since eating so early is patently not smart and this is just the kind of place to let you know that. So, sun still shining embarrassingly brightly, we trooped upstairs to a picturesque, cream dining room with large sash windows and cottagey flowers on the tables. A zillionth of a second over the threshhold and a waiter asked us tensely if we'd booked (talk about obsessed).

At least ordering at The Cow is stress-free. The choices on the menu were confined to a fish or vegetarian main course and cheese or fruit for pudding. For really picky vegetarians, it could be arranged for the confit de duck salad starter to come without confit de duck. The waiter (Inspector Clouseau French and charming once he'd got the Booking Issue out of his system) brought us some good, coarse pate on brown bread, compliments du chef, to while away the time. Unfortunately, the thing about two sittings- a-night joints is that whiling away the time is not a luxury you have. In fact, by the time they'd established that we did have a reservation and sent one of us downstairs for beer (the upstairs restaurant just has a wine licence), there wasn't time to be shilly-shallying around with chef's anythings. Never have plates disappeared so quickly and a bill been so prompt (or so inaccurate).

For some people, speed is probably all part of the charm. The other big attraction of a limited choice system is that the chef can offer fabulous food at value-for-money prices, viz Clarke's on Kensington High Street. Or that's the theory. At The Cow, the name of the game seems to be less about minimising wastage and a lot more about maximising profits. The confit de duck, caramelised and crispy, with sugared, toasted walnuts, was fine, although the vegetarian version with just the salad of leaves wouldn't win any prizes for ingenuity. The cheeses - a Lancashire and a blue one - were delicious. But the main courses - sole in cheese sauce or ragout printanier - were so bland that the average two-year-old would be unimpressed. For the record, ragout printanier is a tureen of beans, carrots and new potatoes in a watery chive broth, with a side dish of...beans, carrots and new potatoes. The red berry fruit salad (no cream, yoghurt or creme fraiche) was OK, but frankly at this level not much could go wrong.

The Cow's big selling-point, presumably, is that it offers three courses for pounds 16.50. Now, I don't know about you, but even for this I feel entitled to something that's at least marginally more imaginative and professional than I can rustle up myself. Besides, by the time we added water, coffee, one glass of wine (the only ones that came by the glass were the house red or white) and a tip it was pounds 22 a head - exactly what we paid two days later for a delicious meal up the road at the Brasserie du Marche.

Still, by 9.25, when a gaggle of girls in strappy sandals and micro T- shirts (the entire fabric content of which might conceivably have stretched into one medium-sized NHS plaster) scampered up the stairs with a bunch of very good-looking boys, it was pretty clear that The Cow sees itself primarily as a meeting place for the beautiful rather than an eating place for the hungry. The staff perked up at the arrival of some groovy customers, and one of the girls squealed that the place was "absolutely gorgeous".

I don't quite go along with that summary. But The Cow does have arrogance, total inflexibility and - to give it the benefit of the doubt, since there have been rumours that on some nights the chef even dips into his herb and spice rack - the added thrill of utter unreliability. Given its location, it should run and run

Photographs by Julian Anderson

The Cow

89 Westbourne Park Road, London W2 (0171-221 0021). Open Tuesday to Saturday, sittings 7.30 and 9.30; Saturday and Sunday 12.30-2pm. Three-course lunch and dinner pounds 16.50. Booking recommended


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