Your latte may soon be Thai lentil. Xenia Gregoriadis on soup bars
AFTER REAL coffee comes real soup. Having contracted the collective caffeine shakes from the Stateside coffee bean bonanza, what we need now is something nourishing and non-addictive to calm our nerves. And it looks like we won't have long to wait. Soup mania has exploded in the US, with over two dozen soup bars in New York alone. Superman, Zoop Soup, Daily Soup and Fashion Soup are just some of the fast-soup joints that have seized upon the big-bucks potential of the liquid meal. And if you can have an Hawaiian pizza, why on earth shouldn't you have Senegalese chicken, macaroni cheese or three-lentil chilli soup?

In British supermarkets, the New Covent Garden company's "home-made" soups made the slurpy stuff groovy again. Not so much Ena Baxter as Ben & Jerry, their flair for wacky combinations helped to obliterate any notion that soup might be boring. Their new soup-to-go kiosks at Euston and Victoria look set to be the start of a capital-wide trend. With eight different flavours (including sour cherry and Thai spinach) at pounds 1.35 a go, the company are shifting 1,000 cups per day. A long queue of customers includes 23- year-old editorial assistant Verity Wilcox, delighted with the new lunch option. "In the right location a soup bar would definitely be a hit, although they might have to sell other stuff as well." "I'm just pleased to see an alternative to burgers and baguettes," says 33-year-old theatre director, Rufus Norris. "I like the range of flavours and it's very convenient."

Meanwhile, at Cranks, established in the Sixties and located throughout London, the menu has always emphasised the benefits of broth. With an eye on low fat, vegetarian ingredients and an average choice of two soups per day, it's regarded as a convenient but healthy choice, particularly for professionals on a tight schedule.

"There's a huge demand for soup at lunch time because it's filling but light and low in calories," explains Jason Degiorgio, assistant manager at Cranks in Covent garden. "People want an energy-boost without the hassle - and cost - of a main meal and when the weather is cold, we can sell up to about 2,400oz every day, mostly to take-away customers," he continues. That's 150 16oz servings, packed with vegetables, carbohydrates, protein and fat (strictly unsaturated). So could soup be the new coffee by the end of the millennium, with a stylish tete a tete over consomme and cigarettes? Vogue food critic Ben Rogers thinks not: "Soup bars may well take off but will never replace coffee," he assures me. "Coffee serves a different function altogether; it gives you a kick that you could never get with a soup."