The source of this extraordinary popularity is a small, concrete beach-side cafe on the eastern edge of Bournemouth where David and Sheila Ryan serve smart but honest cooking. The formula might be a simple one, but, as the bookings show, it pretty much guarantees success.
You approach the Bistro down one of those long, steeply sloping concrete walkways that I remember with pleasure from my childhood. As for the Bistro, it retains much of the look of a beach cafe, with plastic tables and external public lavatories for use of diners and beach bums alike. Indeed, by day, the Bistro on the Beach serves regular English seaside fare, but at night, as the candles and hand-painted crockery are brought out, it becomes something rather smarter.
The Bistro's popularity has attracted its share of national publicity, including the News of the World: "IT'S SWISH AND CHIPS!" It is the locals, though, who pack the place out, booking wedding anniversaries and birthday celebrations months in advance. The night we ate there, a big party was celebrating Sarah's birthday. Her friend David led the toast: "To Sarah, who's got no knickers on." Then his mind sweetly turned to Joyce (perhaps it was her birthday soon): "And to Joyce, who's got tie-dye knickers on." Sheila Ryan apologised: "They aren't like that here, usually," and, indeed, some of the diners were almost old enough to be members of the Tory party.
David Ryan's London training ensured that he learned his trade, but he has no intention of "scaring his customers off with ox cheek and things like that"; his food is fancy but familiar. First courses might include a warm chicken salad with cous-cous and roast vegetables, or a prawn terrine served with a yoghurt and dill dressing - I began with the latter which was pleasant, although a little featureless. The kitchen tends to lean towards meat, but the fish we chose - scallops sauteed in butter and garlic, and a perfectly cooked seabass with soy sauce and stir-fried vegetables - proved the best part of the meal. My companion's lamb noisette came with both red onions and butter onions, proving that you can have too much of a good thing. Desserts are of the old-school variety. The bread and butter pudding was pretty to look at - a slice of cake sitting in a caramelly creme anglaise - and tasted just right. The mango in my mango creme brulee added a novel twist to an old favourite. The Ryans admit that their success has a lot to do with location - our table looked right over the beach - but the prices they charge must help. The set menu is pounds 12 for three courses and house wine starts at pounds 7.50.
It is good to be able to report that there seem to be an increasing number of fish restaurants opening up along Britain's shores - from the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar in Cairndow to the Pig'n' Fish in St Ives - honest, elemental places serving fresh local food. If you cannot get a table at the Bistro on the Beach, or simply fancy something more authentically fishy, Dorset is well-endowed with restaurants. In a weekend spent there recently, I also ate at the Riverside Restaurant in West Bay, near Bridport.
West Bay is a prettily situated little resort devoted mainly to tourism: there is a small funfair, and lots of huts selling candy floss and beach paraphernalia. The Riverside sits on the edge of all this, slightly removed from the hoi polloi - a white, timber building surrounded by boats, with a simple blue and white interior reputed to have been designed by the young Piers Gough. Seafood from West Bay boats provide the kitchen's stock- in-trade and the thing to go for here is simply cooked fish. We went for grilled Dover sole, brill and red mullet - beautifully fresh and perfectly cooked. Desserts, too, are basic but classy - a bowl of strawberries, meringue and clotted cream was a lesson in a simple English pudding. This is a lovely restaurant, well worth a detour, with an imaginative and eclectic list of white wines, friendly local service and a bright happy atmosphere. The bill for two courses and wine came to pounds 27 a head
Bistro on the Beach, Solent Promenade, Southbourne Coast Rd, Bournemouth (01202-431473); open for dinner Wed-Sat. Access and Visa. The Riverside Restaurant, West Bay, Bridport (01308-42201)1; closed Sun eve. and Mon lunch; Access and Visa; wheelchair access.