METROPOLITAN LIFE London's most glamorous waitresses are not all they s eem. Anna Blundy enjoys service with a difference at London's first transvestite restaurant
"WE'VE GOT nine girls here," smiles Soho restaurateur Giacomo Capizzano, squaring his broad shoulders in pride. "I chose them for their experience, their personality and partly, of course, for their looks." It is certainly not their personalities or experience that strike the diner first.

Chelsea is serving our table. A skyscraper of a blonde in a thigh-flashing kimono, she has a sprinkling of purple glitter on her pouting lower lip which she thrusts out in concentration to take an order. "I wasn't dressed for my first interview," she admits, smoothing her skirts. She has been a waitress for seven years.

Chelsea's real name is Barry and she works at Diva, London's first transvestite/ transsexual restaurant, now open in Frith Street, Soho.

"The girls", who glide elegantly between metallic black and red tables and chairs, are decked out with incongruous conservatism. All of them got their jobs after answering an advertisement in a gay newspaper, yet at work they look as sedate as a maiden aunt who might squeal and blush at the slightest impropriety. Chelsea's high-necked turquoise kimono is untypically revealing. Paris, a beautiful but rather butch lady who probably ought to scale down her upper- body work at the gym for verisimilitude, has gone for a coquettishly chaste Audrey Hepburn look, a black velvet choker locked around her Adam's apple. "That's how Giacomo wanted us. I looked quite different when I worked at Madame JoJo's," says Chelsea, who was "given" her name by the proprietors of that transvestite night- club. "Once you've got a drag name it sticks," she explains.

The chef, strictly the standard white apron and loaf-of-bread hat type, is Bruce Temple, formerly of the Rock Garden Cafe and Tuttons in Covent Garden. The food at Diva is aptly flamboyant - none of your meat and two veg here. Temple contrives "encrusted lamb fillet sliced on to diced beetroot and apple compote with coriander and basil gravy" and "salmon escalope bathed in lime, dill, soy, salt and sugar served with toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds with lime vinaigrette" for the resplendent Diva diners. It may be that the food needs to be this delicious and extravagant to stop people staring in bafflement at the waitresses and get them to actually eat something.

"A lot of people come to look," says Capizzano, who claims to have a 75 per cent straight clientele. "We get quite a lot of straight couples coming in where the man comes in drag," he adds. The proportion he quotes is not reflected in Saturday night's crowd, predominantly gay men, some dressed up in sequins and pearls, most in jeans and T-shirts. None seems remotely fazed by the glamorous creatures bearing their asparagus enchiladas.

Capizzano says evening business is good, and he is hoping to boost the daytime turnover with special offers - two Bloody Marys for the price of one next week. "The press coverage has helped a lot," he says, although a journalist from a gay paper left him with a large bill after slurping down two jugs of margaritas. He frowns.

His restaurant, inspired by Lucky Chang's in New York, has inevitably attracted a lot of attention. You can't help but sit and marvel. "I came out to my parents when I was 13," says Chelsea, "and they were great about it. Then when I was 16 I was doing the scene in Edinburgh and I saw a couple of girls in drag. They just seemed to be having a better time - trannies get more attention - so I tried it. It's addictive. When you have done it once you can't stop. My Mum and Dad have both seen me like this a lot. One of my brothers doesn't like it, though." It's like a mask to show another side of yourself. Barry is shy but Chelsea isn't. She doesn't like to entirely revoke Barry, though. "He's always in there," she says.

Over the fresh pineapple in toffee sauce, we are passed by a tall waitress with a deep cleavage and a floral mini-dress. She cannot possibly be a man. "She's on the hormones," says Chelsea, batting her eyelids. "Waist up, she's already a woman." Another has taken time off to be in an Almodovar film. "She's pretty convincing," says Capizzano. "I do prefer her in the black wig, though."