At least Up West there are plenty of places to eat, and some restaurants vie for early-evening custom with bargain menus. The more intrepid fringe theatre-goer often has (Thomas) Hobson's choice when it comes to eating, a pint and a pie in the pub downstairs, or quiche and Cona coffee in the cafe. Which is what makes the Sixty Two Restaurant and Theatre Bar a refreshing exception.
Southwark Playhouse is distinctly off West End, so much so the cab driver had never heard of it, though it has been there four years, and was refurbished with lottery money (his scratch card losses, our gain) this year. But the restaurant is only a few months old, and no fringe effort of amateurish food and rickety furniture. Behind a blue proscenium awning the mise en scene is modern: walls painted primary colours, a fireplace and a blond wood floor. Surrounded by soot-blackened railway arches, it's a daytime attraction as well as a service to the audience in the evening. Perhaps they don't realise it also does one-act bar snacks as well as major three- course productions, for one theatre critic told me it looks too smart and they all gather outside for a ciggie in the courtyard instead. They don't know what they're missing.
The restaurant is part-owned and run by chef Andrew Pitman-Wallace, a bio-chemist with a Cordon Bleu certificate under his belt. The timing and seasoning of his cooking was spot on, and there was an unusually well- developed sense of late-autumn.
Chicken terrine had a double row of prunes running across it like large knobbly-shaped beads, giving it contrasting softness and sweetness; plum chutney with juniper berries added an extra autumnal appeal. The kitchen may have taken bulk delivery of juniper berries for there were more with confit of duck with beetroot marmalade and game chips (aka fancy home-made crisps in a separate bowl). There was nothing marmaladey about the beetroot, grated and rootsy and better than, though deceptively similar-looking to, the more predictable accompaniment of red cabbage. The duck leg had that correct falling apart confited quality, while tidy squares of pinkish breast on top made a chewier contrast, and the beetroot, juniper berries and juices all mulched well together.
Like buying identical clothes over and over again, or picking a succession of similar boyfriends, I have, in just over a month, ordered fish on chickpeas three times in restaurants - at The Lindsay House (cod, chick peas not quite cooked enough, with cumin); at Woz (salmon, chickpeas fine, addition of chorizo better still); here, precisely-cooked cod, tomato broth, and chickpeas again a little too undercooked for completely confident digestion. Memo to self: no more fish 'n' chickpeas for the moment.
My friend, a lawyer playing the part of expert witness, claims connoisseurship of creme brulee (and of roast butternut squash, her starter, and of duck confit) and described this spicy version as divine. With nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, it was so reminiscent of mulled wine she thought it was alcoholic, except there wasn't the rough red to spoil it. She'd chosen a seamlessly seasonal three courses and found them unimpeachable on all counts. I kept pace with a fantastic tarte tatin. The first mouthful was a burst of butteriness, the whole slice a perfect alchemy of apple, sugar and butter on fine flaky pastry.
On our lunchtime showing, we rated it as the best - probably the only - example of nature improved by human hand in this neck of the woods. And all the more surprising when the Playhouse is showing a gritty drama about urban life. The play's not the only thing here, the restaurant's better and as close as good cooking comes to almost any theatre. Lunch or dinner comes to around pounds 25. The cost of a double bill is even better value: theatre ticket holders get 10 per cent off the a la carte prices, or can buy a pounds 15 ticket for the play and two-course dinner
Sixty Two Restaurant, Southwark Playhouse, 62 Southwark Park Road, London SE1 (0171-633 0831). Lunch, dinner. Mon-Fri. Dinner Sat. Average pounds 20 three courses. Bar snacks around pounds 5
On-site, off-West End
Konditor & Cook, Young Vic, 66 The Cut, London SE1 (0171-620 2700) Must be runner-up for second best place to eat in a fringe theatre. More a cafe - and with no food served after 8pm - than a restaurant, and chocka in the early evening, it has great cakes.
People's Palace, Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (0171- 928 9999) Spacious and with a great river view, the Festival Hall's restaurant is the South Bank's best bet for eating before or after another entertainment. A pre-theatre menu is pounds 12.50 for two courses, pounds 15.75 for three, served from 5.30pm-7pm. Around pounds 25 a la carte. Last orders 11pm.
Searcy's, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2 (0171-588 3008) Richard Corrigan's gone but his influence should still be felt in accomplished contemporary cooking in the Barbican's own restaurant. Two courses are pounds 18.50, three pounds 21.50, with dinner served from 5pm to around 11pm depending on performance times.
West End deals on theatre meals
Atelier, 41 Beak Street, London W1 (0171-287 2057) Quiet, thoughtful, individual Soho restaurant with well considered cooking shouldn't be overlooked for its fine value pre-theatre dinner served from 6pm-8pm. Two courses pounds 13.50, three pounds 16.50. Last orders at 10.30pm.
L'Odeon, 65 Regent Street, London W1 (0171-287 1400) A ringside view of the Regent Street lights, and proximity to Piccadilly Circus make this a captivating point to start an evening out at this time of year. Modish French food is made more affordable than the usual pounds 30-plus a head bill, by the 5.30pm-7pm deal of two courses for pounds 14.50, three for pounds 18.
Mon Plaisir, 21 Monmouth Street, London WC2 (0171-836 7243) Covent Garden's French old stager has two courses for pounds 10.95, three for pounds 13.95 before 8pm. Last orders for a la carte dinner are 11.15pm.
Stephen Bull, 12 Upper St Martin's Lane, WC2 (0171-379 7811) Most recent addition to the restaurateur's small empire, brings his exemplary modern British style to the West End. Various permutations designed for pre (5.45pm- 7pm) and post (10.30pm-11.30pm) theatre dining include a starter and dessert for pounds 9, starter and main course for pounds 12.50, or all three courses for pounds 18.Reuse content