Food: Open the box

No time to leave your desk for lunch? Fed up with the same sandwiches every day? Caroline Stacey reports on the companies catering for stressed execs, with tasty take-away lunchboxes (and not a bag of crisps in sight). Photographs by Ross Kirkman
Mash 19-21 Great Portland Street, W1 (0171-291 1500), Mash & Air 40 Chorlton Street, Manchester (0161-661 6161). The Mash box is set to take off, with a vastly elevated version of the airline meal from the two cool restaurants and microbreweries - Mash & Air in Manchester and Mash London. Available now in London from the deli counter, imminently in Manchester, the contents of the boxes are cooked in the restaurants' kitchens and can be picked up or delivered for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Menus change weekly, but there's always a breakfast box, fish box, meat box and veggie box for pounds 12.90 each for three courses. Other boxes range from a pounds 10 box of cookies, to pounds 25 deluxe box of three classy courses. Each see-through box has three levels: cutlery, napkins and condiments on top, starter and main course underneath, and the pudding layer with Mash cookies at the bottom. If these lamb chops look deliciously juicy, that's because they are, but don't expect them hot. This box is far too cool to go in the microwave. Other temperate, transparently tempting Mash meals-to-go might include guinea fowl with rocket salad and roast tomatoes or a toasted ciabatta sandwich with mozzarella and roast peppers.

Deliverance (0500 888800/fax 0171-801 0017). For a very, very late lunch. You don't even have to get out of bed to fetch it; just be prepared to answer the door when your repast arrives. Deliveries start at 5.30pm, although genuine lunch-time deliveries are promised soon. Top- of-the-range take-aways come from a Battersea-based service that distributes to the more central areas of south-west London, north and south of the river - ie, Chelsea and Wandsworth, yes, Brixton, no, Tooting, no. To take-away food what Harvey Nichols is to the cornershop, the menu is divided by cuisines, each cooked by its own chef - Thai, Indian, Chinese, pizza, even salad. Deliverance came out top in a recent contest between London's delivered meals, beating even ethnic specialists. Around 35 minutes after placing your order, it's brought round any evening of the week in a corrugated cardboard tote box with a handle, inside which are natty sealed transparent containers for runny dishes, American-style take-away boxes if they're not - either way, there's no red grease leaking into a brown paper bag. "We get a lot of praise for our packaging," says Rowan Blacker, one of the deliverers. A meal for two, pounds 14 to pounds 20.

Cranks (above) 8 Marshall Street, London W1 (0171-437 9431) and branches. Sunny-coloured cardboard cartons contain the hot dishes - jacket potato (pounds 1.95), light lasagne, roasted vegetables and couscous (pounds 3.25) and stir-fry (pounds 2.95) - to take away, but only temporarily distract from the fact that the vegetarian chain has run out of steam, despite jazzier packaging.

Sofra Cafe (right) 145 High Holborn, London WC1 (0171-430 0430) and branches. Transparently excellent take-away boxes from this estimable chain of Turkish cafes may not be as stylish as a cardboard tuckbox, but the meze of kisir, imam bayildi, hummous, manca, taboulleh, and falafel for pounds 2.90 beats all the others for value and variety. Or take away the clear plastic container filled with basmati rice and kofte, chicken, lamb or vegetarian casserole for pounds 3.10.

Cafe Plaza (far right) 7a Hanover Street, London W1 (0171-629 4361). Part of the JAL designer mini-market - all very echt Japanese - this little luncheonette does a bento box (Japanese for a meal in a compartmentalised box) of rice and a meat dish, pickles and salad for pounds 6. A snip for a Nippon tuck box.

Lunch (above) 60 Exmouth Market, EC1 (0171-278 2420). Matthew Conrad is the originator of Lunch (why didn't any one think of the name before), the filling alternative to the sandwich bar, putting a box around salady lunches. It only opened in the spring, but already another has just opened in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Conrad, a solicitor who decided to change direction, believed he was best qualified to tackle the midday meal, "because it's what I had most experience of as a consumer. Lunch was so important to me, I'd think about it from 11am, but more often than not I was disappointed." He'd lived in the States, and watched LA Law often enough to envy their take-away lunchboxes, then tracked down the cartons here. Now his staff fill them with a selection of substantial salads - chicken with cashew nuts, chilli and honey; potato, sweet-and- sour grilled pumpkin and courgette; spicy chick peas, at pounds 3.50 for three, or maybe char-grilled tuna Nicoise (more expensive at pounds 6.95), kept as separate from each other as possible by lettuce leaf compartments. Even risottos and posh hot dogs - duck and orange sausage in a roll - have been turned into a packed lunch. If you eat in the boxy concrete cafe, you still do it from the disposable container