A notable exception to the rule is Markwicks restaurant in Bristol. Not only is it knocking this top table tradition on the head, it is also doing so in a heartland of the old guard. Markwicks, set in the vaulted cellars of the old Commercial Rooms in the handsome, Georgian financial district, has a superb wine list and excellent cooking. Moreover, it has answered the recession by radically shaving its prices.
All this, and it is beautiful. What were originally safety deposit vaults are now adjoining dining-rooms. That they are among the prettiest in Britain owes much to a Parisian designer called Slavik. Lighting is soft and flattering, flooring is black and white, and there is rich wood panelling and pastel plasterwork.
But it is the food and wine that really wow. And so they should, considering that Stephen Markwick's cv reads like the Who's Who of West Country cooking: he worked with Joyce Molyneux at the Carved Angel, then joined George Perry Smith at the Riverside Restaurant in Helford, then set up Bistro 21 in Bristol.
There is a lot of fish at Markwicks, much of it fresh up from Cornwall. Braised squid is tender and aromatic, its wine sauce boosted by coriander, lemon zest and fennel. Monkfish is simply roasted and served with a spicy salsa. Salmon may be served as salmon tartare, a fishy play on steak tartare, a lovely fresh glop bound into a ball with a smoked- salmon skin. Puddings, too, delight. Lemon tarts, cooked a la minute, arrive hot and perfumed. Cafetiere coffee is good.
The wines are fabulous: Mr Markwick had the nous to lay down wine years ago, so you will find on his list rare and delicious Rhones, such as 1964, 1966 and 1967 Gigondas from Paul Jaboulet Aine. The main French regions are seen to and the New World nodded to. The selection of house wines is very impressive: among the whites, Avignonesi Bianco ( pounds 14), and the reds, a Chilean cabernet sauvignon, a chianti and a tempranillo from Navarra.
Judy Markwick tends front of house with warmth and professionalism, qualities that have helped the restaurant beat the recession. They offer set dinners for pounds 19.50 that stand up handsomely to the carte. Set lunch is a snip at pounds 8.50 for two courses, or pounds 10.50 for three. The menu changes daily. Given the means, one could quite happily live out of there.
VINTAGE claret and scorched grouse was almost certainly the order of the day until recently at Harveys Restaurant, also in Bristol. It was opened in 1962 by the vintners (most famous for Harveys Bristol Cream). By the Seventies and Eighties, local oenophiles resorted to it for astonishing bargains, such as Mouton-Rothschild '59 for pounds 60, or Leoville Las Cases '59 for pounds 45. To eat, they would venture cautiously to fettucine carbonara and rack of lamb.
Then last summer, under the ownership of Allied Lyons, Harveys closed for refurbishment. A Michelin-starred chef, Ramon Farthing, was brought in from a country house hotel. It was time for Harveys to enter the Nineties.
The transformation is too conservative to be modern. The ancient vaults, brightly whitewashed, have been decorated in a comfortable but somewhat soulless manner. Piped music plays a misbegotten dinner music compilation.
The menu is admirably short, which is fortunate, for the wine list is a big creaky number with surprisingly few half bottles for a vintner, and a rather dull selection in the medium-to-low price range. Those looking for a Latour '45, costing pounds 2,500, do rather better.
Staff are charming and eager, sometimes overly so. Interrupting avidly chatting guests to invite them to tour your wine museum before their meal seems silly. No plate is set down without the waiter thanking you, nor taken away without an inquiry about whether it was all right.
That the cooking is able shows in the simplest dishes. Noisettes of lamb on dauphinois potatoes with a sweet, fragrant dressing of roast red peppers, olive oil and basil were excellent. More complicated dishes disappointed. A dish of the day, a selection of steamed fish, came in a large, unappetising mound, dominated by red mullet. Too many good ingredients became simply fishy.
Harveys does, however, serve 1953 Coronation edition Bristol Cream. Lovely, heady stuff.
Our three-course lunch, with two modest half bottles, two Bristol Creams, and mineral water cost almost exactly pounds 50 per head. If Harveys is seriously intent on entering the Nineties, this is too much.
Markwicks, 43 Corn Street, Bristol BS1 (0272-262658). Children welcome; special portions. Vegetarian meals. Open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. Access, Visa, Amex.
Harveys, 12a Denmark Street, Bristol BS1 (0272-277665). Piped music. Vegetarian menu. Children welcome; special portions. Open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. Credit cards.