The Only Running Footman: A wonderfully welcoming pub...on one level, at least

The Only Running Footman, 5 Charles Street, London W1, 020 7499 2988

Walking into The Only Running Footman is like coming late to an Irish wake. It's noisy and friendly, all hustle and bustle, with mouthy bartenders pulling pints of Red Squirrel and Bombardier, cheeky waitresses trading quips with punters, and a telly on the wall blaring out the news. Bare, scrubbed wooden tables are set with little tin boxes of sauces and cutlery, while a huge blackboard lists such fare as half-pints of prawns, grilled sardines, lamb's shank shepherd's pie, and Bakewell tart.

The only problem is that I'm not eating here; I'm eating upstairs in the dining-room. I head up the carpeted stairs as if punished. Upstairs or downstairs, I always know where I will be happiest, and it isn't up with the white tablecloths, it's down in the basement giggling with Gertie the chambermaid as we fold the linen . But if I am to do justice to this newly opened Mayfair pub from the team behind The House in Islington and The Bull in Highgate, I should probably dine in the restaurant. Never did like that word "should".

The room is small, plain and light, set with white-clothed tables and generous velvet chairs. A pretty stone fireplace sits at one end, and a scattering of business types talk solemnly in low voices, contributing nothing to the lack of atmosphere.

Executive chef Jeremy Hollingsworth, who cooked with Marco Pierre White for six years, has put together a menu that suits the mood, with lots of big-man food that runs from foie gras terrine to char-grilled rib of Aberdeen Angus for two, interspersed with more girly dishes such as scallop and crab sausage with champagne sauce. The waiter is sweetly self-conscious and French (why Brits downstairs and French upstairs? I guess we all know why) and proceeds to reel off a list of daily specials that is the mirror image of the blackboard downstairs. So I could have stayed downstairs after all.

Lunch kicks off with grilled sardines (£6.50), the three of them beached on a splashy bright-red Virgin Mary sauce, with a hillock of chunky avocado salsa, and a more unusual starter of Neathercleave farm snails, laver bread and duck-fat toast (£8.50). About a dozen fat, fleshy snails come with mossy, slimy splodges of laver bread, which, as you know, is Welsh seaweed similar to Japanese nori and nothing at all to do with bread. There is toast, but it tastes neither of duck nor fat. The snails are chewy, unlike the tender little babies I tried recently at Great Queen Street in Covent Garden.

Sticking to wines by the glass, I try a fragrant and peachy 2005 Bodegas Castro Martin Albarino (£7), and a 2005 Bouchard Pinossimo Pinot Noir (£4.95), which is too lightweight to be satisfying.

Passing up the £23.50 lobster and clam spaghettini and the £19.95 mixed grill, I go for the cheapskate's Gloucester Old Spot slow-roast pork with mash (£13.95). It's a big slab of meat with a substantial layer of fat, perched on enough mash to serve a family of four. The pork has flavour, and the snappy green beans and marjoram jus pull the whole thing together.

A herb risotto (£12.95) topped with deep-fried onion rings and a few fried parsley leaves is disappointing, the rice bland yet claggy with cheese. Good risotto shouldn't be this hard. Or this firm.

By now I've had enough of being a grown-up, and ask to take pudding in the bar. Happiness returns once I am ensconced at a wooden table surrounded by grinning diners, their platters licked clean of lamb shank pie. A generous slab of jammy, cakey, almond-moist Bakewell tart (£5.50) makes me feel even better, instantly winning my best Bakewell award. Coffee, too, is excellent.

The Running Footman has ambitious plans for yet more levels, with a second-floor private-event room and a third-floor cookery school and private chef's table taking shape. I doubt I will ever see them, however. They sound a bit above me. *

12/20

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

The Only Running Footman, 5 Charles Street, London W1, tel: 020 7499 2988

Downstairs: breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Upstairs: breakfast Sat-Sun; lunch and dinner Mon-Sat. Around £90 for two upstairs, including wine and service

Second helpings: More pub/diners on two levels

The Kings Arms

Market Square, Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire, tel: 01451 830 364

One of the Cotswolds' favourite foodie pubs. The bar pumps out drinks downstairs; the kitchen, duck confit, lamb shanks and roast guinea fowl upstairs.

The Headley

Headley Common, Great Warley, Brentwood, Essex, tel: 01277 216 104

Midsummer House's Daniel Clifford took over here earlier this year. Go for back-to-basics pies downstairs, or fancier fare upstairs.

Bumpkin

209 Westbourne Park Road, London W11, tel: 020 7243 9818

Rustic, seasonal comfort food. Ground floor is come-as-you-are cosy; the flashier first-floor restaurant takes bookings.

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