Hampstead's local heroes: It does not break new ground, stop the traffic or blast the doors off their frames, but it offers something almost as good: a confident, good-value, expertly run local restaurant Photographs by Morley von Sternberg
It has become a cliche to say that Britain's high streets have lost any character they once had, but then cliches are rooted in truth. Shoppers in Salisbury are faced with much the same choice - a Tesco, an Our-Price, a Boots and four banks - as shoppers in Newcastle or, for that matter, almost any British airport.

It is less commonly noted that restaurants are one of the few things that continue to give individuality to an area. Nowadays, it is also restaurants, or, at least, the good ones among them, that do most to keep what ever culinary diversity this country has alive: farmers who rear special breeds or grow unusual fruit and vegetables sell most of their produce to restaurants. What this means is that if you followed, say, the Good Food Guide from county to county, you would get a relatively varied tour through Britain. Although, if it was the Good Food Guide you followed, you'd quickly discover its evaluations can be somewhat eccentric.

Hampstead likes to think of itself as a special sort of neighbourhood, London's answer to Montmartre, but most of its shops are also, in fact, of the chain variety, albeit of a rather upmarket kind. Of course, it has some fine architecture of the 18th and 19th century, but its modern- day residents can't take responsibility for that. The area's restaurants, then, are almost all that is left to tell us much about it. And here, the message, until recently, has been pretty depressing, with hardly a notable eatery in the area, suggesting Hampstead's prosperous burghers are not as discriminating as they like to think. In the past year or so, however, this has begun to change, with the emergence of a couple of small, lively, modern-minded restaurants that deserve to thrive. One is Cucina, in South End Green, by the Heath - a small, friendly set-up, run by an Australian team offering a vaguely Thai-Cal-Ital menu whose often unexpected combinations - chicken breast with pecorino mash, black pudding and truffle jus - are generally successful and occasionally inspired. The other is Gresslin's, high up on the hill, a minute's walk from Hampstead tube.

The Good Food Guide's new rating system gives Gresslin's five out of 10, which is, perhaps, over-stretching it a bit (Riva, in Barnes, one of London's best Italian restaurants gets three, the superlative Sugar Club, in Notting Hill Gate, gets four), but it is a very likeable place. It does not break new ground, stop the traffic or blast the doors off their frames, but it offers something almost as good: a confident, good- value, expertly run local restaurant which knows better than to compete with the stars.

Gresslin's was set up two years ago by German-born Michael Gresslin, and there is something in the professionalism and classlessness of the place (the dedication of the waiters, in particular) which isn't quite English. The long, thin dining room is simply decked-out with yellow walls, wood floors, bare tables, and chairs from Habitat or perhaps the Reject Shop, but it is congenial, not too loud, and happily busy. The cooking, described as "modern European with an Oriental Influence" (Gresslin cooked in Sri Lanka for some time), is familiar in style, but avoids all the cliches, which is to say there are no fish cakes and not much rocket, although lemon tart makes an inevitable appearance. First courses begin at pounds 3.50 (a harmonious roast pumpkin soup with Indian spices), and mains at pounds 11 (semolina gnocchi with grilled portobello mushrooms and truffle oil).

Our party included a pathologist and an anatomist who approached the place with the forensic thoroughness you'd expect. The pathologist sent out conflicting messages: his spring-onion hopper with Thai salad and sauteed squid was "very pleasant" but "a bit too busy", his smoked tofu with noodles in a cider and walnut vinaigrette was judged "interesting" but "vinegary". Only the three sorbets in a brandy-snap basket with a fruit coulis got an entirely clean bill of health. The rest of us, however, had ordered less adventurously and were happier as a result; the wild mushroom risotto was expert; braised lamb shank (tibia, according to the anatomist) with chick peas was simple but heartening. Only the grilled mahi mahi was a little flavourless, but then, truth be told, exotic fish don't have much to recommend them, exoticism aside - the stuff from the Atlantic is as common as muck, but fresher and better. Watching the waiters, well turned-out and attentive, ducking and darting between tightly packed tables, reminded us why they are sometimes properly called "a crew". Our meal, including a Californian Pinot Noir (Arciero, pounds 18.50) from a short, lively mainly New World list, came to pounds 34 a head.

Gresslin's was bursting the night we ate there, and the restaurant looks set to survive. Most independently owned restaurants, however, don't have it so good. More than half close within a year of opening. That's bad news for restaurants, but also for anyone who cares about the character of Britain's cities and towns

Gresslin's, 13 Heath Street, Hampstead, London NW3 (0171-794 8386); Lunch, Tues-Sun, dinner Mon-Sat, Mastercard and Visa.

Other London locals

Riva, 169 Church Road, London SW3 (0181-748 0434). In size, style and location (Barnes), Riva bares all the hallmarks of a local restaurant, but such is the quality of Andrea Riva's North Italian cooking that people have been known to drive from Islington to eat here. Favourite dishes include roast best end of lamb with pecorino and herbs served with barley pancakes, and the unlikely named sgroppin - lemon sorbet with prosecco and grappa. About pounds 30 per head.

Lemonia, 89 Regents Park Road, London NW1 (0171-586 7454) A favourite with locals in Primrose Hill, Lemonia is the smartest, brightest and most agree the best of the many Greek restaurants in the Camden area. Aubergine salad and red mullet makes for a perfect meal. As with Riva, advanced booking is more or less essential. About pounds 20 a head.

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