Food & Drink: Seeking out the good-vibe cafes - There are times and places where atmosphere is more important than what appears on the plate, says Emily Green - Food + Drink - Life and Style - The Independent

Food & Drink: Seeking out the good-vibe cafes - There are times and places where atmosphere is more important than what appears on the plate, says Emily Green

THE ATTRACTION of a restaurant may be simply that it is somewhere to go. The food is not necessarily the point; it is the vibe. Beatnik-inspired cafes trade heavily in vibe. They are cool or, as the latest transatlantic youthspeak has it, 'fresh'. R&B, jazz, salsa and world music play. Women wear black stretchy numbers and enough eye-liner for Tutankhamun. Men wear roller-skates.

Or at least, roller-skates are what a young man with a sculpted body and shoulder-length hair was wearing in Brighton at the Sanctuary Cafe. He was freshness itself as he rolled gently back and forth from table to counter. The do-it-yourself ethic starts with the design, which is a DIY job by owners Michael Temple and Fiona Denning. They knocked up a very jolly set of rooms over several floors, which took ingenuity, for cottages in Brighton's narrow lanes tend to be either small or very small. At the Sanctuary, paintwork races through the place in bright yellows, purples, blues, lime green, orange.

Chairs are merrily mismatched, and include atomic-age classics by the Modernist designer Jacobsen. Then there are gilded function chairs, gone AWOL after one too many bar mitzvahs, and some throne-like Mackintosh-inspired armchairs. Everything is scuffed from use.

Orders for food are taken from a counter, behind which shelves sag with all sorts of good things: teas, limes, lemons, jugs of fresh herbs. A blackboard lists specials. Some of these are more special than others though, to be fair, the head chef was off-duty during my visit.

A vegetable soup had watery stock and large chunks of undercooked peppers, courgettes and celery. Built into the bargain was a generous basket of spongey wholemeal bread with a seeded crust, served with a pot of sweet butter. A Greek salad of tomato, feta and lavish amounts of fresh dill looked messy but tasted OK. Pasta, curiously described as 'al fredo' was oiled fusilli with whacking amounts of garlic, a mound of shaved parmesan and a silly garnish of two olives, one black, one green.

Cost for three courses, two beers, service and VAT might be as low as pounds 12. However, hospitality is so easy you could easily linger all day over a free newspaper for the cost of a coffee. And there is live music, including a concert by jazz composer and pianist Keith Tippett on 10 July to celebrate the Sanctuary's first birthday.

TWO Mancunians, Andrew Watt and David Molyneux, opened The Edge in Soho, London, last December. It means to be youthful and jazzy, and is the prototype of a cafe they hope to copy across Europe. However, Europeans, like Londoners, might find lingering at The Edge more a chore than a pleasure. This two-storey, all- day cafe is an uncomfortable collection of Eighties fashions. Minimalist twisted metal is everywhere, from light fixtures, to banisters to chairs. Ours were brutally uncomfortable.

Menus are elaborately bound little books, of a size better suited to Spot's First Walk. Instinct warned against ordering the more elaborate offerings, such as the seafood platter, and the hamburger - usually a safe option - chosen by a neighbouring table looked less than inviting.

A double-decker bacon, lettuce and avocado sandwich was poor. One of the layers of toast was burnt to brittle blackness, then set face down to conceal it. Tortellini, stuffed with some sort of sage cream and lathered in gorgonzola sauce was only marginally better. The pasta was thick, pre- cooked then withered, probably by a microwave.

AS A rule, it is sensible to avoid any restaurant with the word 'art' in the name (and any permutations thereof, especially in French). They tend to be neither artistic nor good for much else. The Arts Theatre Cafe, on the border of Covent Garden, is an exception.

Physically, it is little more than a dark basement with a makeshift counter made up mainly of a fridge cabinet. Doors to the loo jam open. The walls are hung with hammy theatrical stills, and there is a leaflet dispenser in which every play listed is declared a masterpiece, unmissable, or both.

A chap sits in the back doing paperwork. You worry for him. The room is less than half-full. It turns out he is Philip Owens of Owens and Monteith, the caterers who rent this basement from the Arts Theatre. He first turned to a Mediterranean diet in hopes of relief from arthritis. It worked. He has now got us all on the cure, even writing the menu in Italian, though the chef, Gwen Sampy, is about as Italian as smorgasbord.

But why argue if medicine tastes this good? A fresh gazpacho, with excellent stock, diced tomato, cucumber, onion and lots of green stuff that tasted like basil, parsley and tarragon, was delicious. A country pate was rough, meaty and good. To the side was a caper-rich salsa verde and two slices of flavoursome sourdough toast. For dessert, a ripe peach was stoned, sectioned and covered with a mascarpone cream spiked with amarettini. To the side, raspberry sauce.

You have to sit down to notice the other grace notes in this makeshift dining room. Tables are freshly laid and each has a small pot of fresh flowers, including lavender. A man waiting the floor could not be more pleasant and quietly efficient.

Two minor quibbles: coffee tasted stale and only vino plonko is by the glass. Prices are cheap for the West End. Three courses, a bottle of Becks, coffee, service and VAT cost pounds 14.70.

The Sanctuary Cafe, 51-55 Brunswick Street East, Hove (0273 770002). Vegetarian meals. Open 10am-11.30pm Tue-Sun; 12.30- 11.30pm Mon. No credit cards.

The Edge, 11 Soho Square, London W1 (071 439 1223). Vegetarian meals. Open Mon-Fri 8am- 12midnight; Sat 10am-12midnight (last orders 11pm); Sun 12noon- 10.30pm. Major credit cards.

Arts Theatre Cafe, 6 Great Newport Street, London WC2 (071- 497 8014). Vegetarian meals. Open 12noon-11pm Mon-Fri; Sat 6-11pm (last orders). Cash, cheques only.

FINE FOOD, SWIFT SERVICE AND WAITRESSES WHO CAN SING 'LA BAMBA'

Blackpool: One could be forgiven for mistaking the September Brasserie 15-17 Queen Street, Blackpool (0253- 23282) for the September hair salon. They occupy the same building. Nor is the upstairs brasserie really a brasserie. It is more cafe: small, affordable and neat. Food includes bar snacky items, such as salted herring served on spicy rye toast, topped with minced shallots in olive oil. Meats and eggs tend to be organic, free-range or both.

Dorset: The whitewashed rooms of the Riverside Restaurant and Cafe, West Bay, near Bridport (0308 22011) overlook grounds where children play. The menu offers simply grilled fish, perhaps mullet, lemon sole, or John Dory. There are decent wines and good coffee. Kids shriek. Waitresses sing along to La Bamba. It's fun.

Central London: It took a Scottish newsagent and an English art dealer to open a chic cafe-delicatessen with an Irish name serving robust Italianate food: O'Keefe's, 19 Dering Street, London W1 (071-495 0878). There might be an olive oil and madeira cake. Soups change daily, but have included a light spring garlic with creme fraiche. Main courses will include fish (perhaps simply grilled sea bass), a quiche (maybe leek and cheddar), a meat (liver and salsa verde) and exotic salads. Good wine and beer.

Norfolk: Pinocchio's, 11 St Benedict's Street, Norwich (0603-613318) serves what it takes (or mistakes) to be 'modern Italian' food. A hearty veal braise with tender meat and melting marrow was authentically Italianate. Hospitality is warm, service is swift and food is generally good.

(Photograph omitted)

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