A global bakery chain is keen to pass on the joys of communal eating. Well, someone has to show us Brits how to break bread with our fellow diners

At Le Pain Quotidien on rue Antoine Dansaert in Brussels, the fashionable locals turn the global bakery chain's communal table into a party; swapping jars of conserves and gossip as if at a family breakfast. At Le Pain Quotidien on East 19th Street in New York, even the tensely lipped, blow-dried women bridal-list shopping at the adjoining ABC store relax at the long, bare wooden tables and cup their perfect manicures around warm boules of coffee.

At Le Pain Quotidien on rue Antoine Dansaert in Brussels, the fashionable locals turn the global bakery chain's communal table into a party; swapping jars of conserves and gossip as if at a family breakfast. At Le Pain Quotidien on East 19th Street in New York, even the tensely lipped, blow-dried women bridal-list shopping at the adjoining ABC store relax at the long, bare wooden tables and cup their perfect manicures around warm boules of coffee.

But at the new Le Pain Quotidien on London's Marylebone High Street, the 20-seat communal table strikes fear in the heart of the toughest shopper. Time and again, people baulk at it, nostrils flaring. Their eyes roam the room looking for a small, individual table - anything - that will rescue them from being too close to their fellow man. If a small, poky wooden table for two by the loo door becomes free, they leap at it. If not, they sort of colonise the space around them, building firewalls of parcels and coats on adjacent chairs. Thirteen years after the launch of Wagamama, you'd think we would have learnt the basic etiquette of communal dining, but no. These people calmly break every unwritten rule.

They sit side by side, rather than opposite each other. They pull their chairs out to sit almost parallel to the table so they are facing their companion, effectively blocking off two more chairs in the process. They place their handbags on the table. It's almost sociopathic. Or is it just the so-called great British reserve; as in, they would rather reserve a table of their own. But there are no reservations, so to speak, at LPQ.

It may be a formulaic chain of 55 stores worldwide (with another 10 scheduled to open this year), but Le Pain Quotidien (meaning daily bread) is very attractive. It is a bakery first and foremost, with everything designed to go in, on, or with bread, and it is available all day from breakfast through lunch through to whatever you call eating in the late afternoon. You enter through the bakery shop, with its bare wooden counters and floors, walls stacked high with loaves of organic sourdough, rye, five-grain, etc, then go on to the café with its bare wooden tables, exposed brick walls and blackboard specials.

Bread-based choices include a range of open-faced, un-toasted tartines of Scottish smoked salmon and dill, and roast beef with caper mayonnaise. There are two daily soups, which come with bread; a variety of salads, which come with bread; and a selection of "specialties", including an organic hummus, babaganoush and tabouleh platter, which come with bread.

Everything ordered comes not only quickly but simultaneously, and I am soon surrounded by an edible moat of dishes. To run through it quickly: a charcuterie platter (£ 8.50) is a bit plain, consisting of smoked prosciutto, very plain ham, some good saucisson and a sweaty, thin slice of pâté. Little cornichons add character, but wedges of melon and tomato take it away again.

The melon-tomato garnish soon proves ubiquitous, appearing with a side dish of organic mesclun salad (£2.25) that is friskily dressed, and a tartine topped with a crumbly organic egg salad topped with wild capers and anchovies (£5.75). The tartine is the best thing so far, although it does feel as if it were put together by a very healthy person petrified at the thought of using too much butter and mayonnaise.

Hot food is thin on the ground apart from the soups of the day. A butter bean and red-onion soup (£3.75 a bowl or £2.75 a cup) is very cable-sweater; thick, hearty and well meaning, but lacking any real character. Or seasoning, which may well mean the same thing.

We're on safer ground with desserts, as they come fresh from the bakery. A nicely scorched, lightly glazed apple tart (£3.30) is slightly custardy and delicious.

The crowd is all hair-sprayed matrons, sporty American girls, networking Harley Street medicos, and skinny little girls who look at the bread as if it were a deadly enemy. Keep up, ladies, we're post-Atkins now and real bread has a low GI rating.

The strength of the Le Pain Quotidien experience lies in the fact that it is a bakery, albeit a finishing school for the flash-frozen, almost-baked naturally leavened breads sent from the head bakery in Brussels. The sourdough is good, but not as dense as Pain Poilâne or as sour as the pain levain of Maison Blanc.

The shop also sells little cakes and tarts, organic preserves, teas and coffees, and even the coffee bowls. Everything is of good quality, from sea salt and pepper to olive oils and vinegars, which tends to show up the weaker aspects of the cooking - the poor charcuterie, for instance, and the gratuitous out-of-season garniture. Coffee is a good blend, sadly spoiled by the flavour of boiled milk.

Like the French bakery chain Paul, also in Marylebone High Street, Le Pain Quotidien offers a casual, flexible dining alternative to the Prets and Caffe Neros of our time. The queues tell the story - it's here to stay. Perhaps even long enough for Britain to get the hang of the dreaded communal table.

12 Le Pain Quotidien 72 Marylebone High Street, London W1, tel: 020 7486 6154. Open 7am to 7pm Mon-Fri; 7am to 6pm Sat-Sun. Around £30 for lunch for two. Alcohol license pending

Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

Second helpings: Three more bakery-cum-restaurants

Aubaine 260-262 Brompton Road, London SW3, tel: 020 7052 0100 Another freshly baked member of the growing London bread, croissant and cake club. Owner Hani Nakkash's stated ambition is to create a typically Parisian boulangerie and patisserie. But Aubaine has grown into a restaurant as well, serving up French breakfasts, light lunches and more substantial dinners such as rib-eye steak with a choice of three sauces.

Henderson's 94 Hanover Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 225 2131 For more than 40 years Henderson's has been flying the veggo flag proudly in Edinburgh. You can find focaccia, sourdough and oatcakes from its own bakery in the shop, along with organic wines, fruit and veg, and in the adjoining café and bistro, accompanying a range of good salads, home-made soups, curries and lasagne.

Village Bakery Melmerby, Cumbria, tel: 01768 881 811 The wood-fired ovens of this famous Cumbrian bakery have been turning out truckloads of organic breads and cakes since 1976. The recently refurbished restaurant overlooking the village green is certified organic by the Soil Association and is known for breakfasts of oak-smoked Inverawe kippers and organic bacon sarnies. At lunch, there are home-made soups, steak-and-kidney pies, and simple trout dishes.

E-mail Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at t.durack@independent.co.uk

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