Terry Durack savours some culinary masterpieces at a canteen for starving artists

The days when artists had to suffer for their art are fading fast. Spurred on by events such as last week's Frieze Art Fair, the British art market generates £500m a year - enough to rent a garret and buy a bottle of absinthe for every starving artist in the country.

Besides, artists eat really well. Lucian Freud haunts Locanda Locatelli, Marc Quinn likes The River Café, and Damien Hirst is now on to his second restaurant, 11 The Quay in Devon.

At the Rochelle School in London's East End, built in 1899 as a school for children from Bethnal Green's Boundary Estate and recently transformed into studios, exhibition and performance spaces by James Moores' A Foundation, the tables are well and truly turned.

Don't expect worried mums to be pushing burgers and hot chips through the railings to their grown-up artist, fashion designer and photographer sons and daughters here. In a move that would make poor Jamie spit with jealousy, a "school canteen" has been installed to house the caterers, Arnold & Henderson - Nose to Tail Eating, who stage private functions and parties in the exhibition spaces here. A small dining-room was added, primarily for the use of this rather precious gated community, and, as a bonus, for those outside the walls as well. Of course, it's bloody brilliant.

The only suffering you have to do is bring cash (no cards), bring your own wine (no licence as yet) and be prepared to share a table with someone whose latest creation wafted down the catwalk at London Fashion Week or went straight into the Saatchi collection. You may also have to sit next to a smoker, because, surprisingly, smoking is allowed in spite of the proximity of the open kitchen.

You might also experience a little artistic déjà vu as you walk into the small, 30-seat dining-room, with its plain, whitewashed walls, row of coat hooks, white ceiling, white table tops, vintage wooden chairs of great delicacy, and adjoining industrial kitchen of matt stainless steel. It will deepen as you are handed a plain white sheet of paper on which the menu reads like a shopping list: beetroot, watercress and soft boiled egg; chorizo and potatoes; bread; new potatoes; carrots; ginger beer; PG Tips. If the "Nose to Tail" bit didn't give it away before, then the menu itself makes it very clear that Dad is Smithfield's ground-breaking St John restaurant, Mum is St John Bread & Wine in Spitalfields, and this is the kid that ran away to be an artist.

The owners of Rochelle Canteen are Margot Henderson and Melanie Arnold, who continued to run the French House Dining Room in Soho when their husbands, Fergus Henderson and Jon Spiteri, left to start St John with highly seasoned restaurateur Trevor Gulliver, in 1994.

Adding to the St John connection is the presence in the kitchen of chef Kevin McFadden from Bread & Wine. Speaking of which, a gentle, good-natured waiter brings some good, solid, crusty St John's sourdough (50p) that is both fresh and freshly cut. Next, is a fresh, light salad of silky, cured salmon, chicory wedges and boiled new potatoes (£5.50), all highly compatible plate-fellows. Simplicity and freshness totally win the day. Another starter of watercress, roasted beetroot and a single soft-boiled egg (£6) is a little bland - when you have only three things on the plate, they all have to pull their weight.

I find it hard to believe that people aren't packed in like sardines, but torrential autumnal downpours are keeping the crowds away and the noise down. Skinny little things in statement sneakers and beatnik shirts come in to grab coffees (well-made Illy) and slabs of flourless chocolate cake to take back to their respective garrets. The talk is of Helmut Newton, Japanese silks, weddings, Canadian Mounties, mushrooms on toast, you know the sort of thing.

Um, I was the one talking about mushrooms on toast, actually. But what mushrooms, and what toast. A big, thick raft of grilled sourdough is slathered with an autumn-brown jumble of buttery, fleshy ceps (master race of the fungi world), parasol-pretty chanterelles, nutty girolles and their oozy, parsley-flecked juices (£7). The flavours keep on coming long after I get my seven quids' worth.

I also love a big, messy, juicy plate of stewed salt cod with white beans and tomatoes (£9). It wouldn't win any beauty contests, but it is warming, comforting, and sustaining all at once. Puds are simple but equally generous: an enormous chocolate brownie - more ganache than cake, really - comes with a lovely, crunchy, brown-bread ice cream for a ridiculous £3.50.

Only real professionals know how to turn out great food at a great price like this. It's the amateurs who try to copy them that you have to watch out for. This is just uncompromisingly seasonal, well-cooked food that is kept plain, simple and casual, served in what feels like an urban beach shack in Shoreditch. It's definitely the place to go when you don't want to suffer too much for your art.

15/20 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

Rochelle Canteen, Rochelle School, Arnold Circus, London E2, tel: 020 7729 5677. Open 11am-3pm, Monday to Friday. Around £40 for two, not including service. BYO wine

Second helpings: More little gems

The Wee Restaurant

17 Main Street, North Queensferry, Fife, tel: 01383 616 263

That's wee as in small, of course. Bag one of only 28 seats to try the well-pedigreed Craig Woods' locally sourced, well-priced, and intelligently prepared dishes.

The Black Door

32 Clayton Street West, Newcastle Upon Tyne, tel: 0191 261 6295

Thirty-four seats, David Kennedy's classic stylish cooking, and wild sea bass with tempura of frog's legs? What more could you want?

Harry's Place

17 High Street, Great Gonerby, Lincolnshire, tel: 01476 561 780

You have to be lucky to snare one of the 10 (yes, 10 - you know, like your toes) chairs in this tiny Lincolnshire treasure, with slick and stimulating cooking by Harry Hallam.

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