A year ago, candidates for lunch might have included one of Chinatown's dim sum restaurants (Leon's on Wardour Street is good), or perhaps the French House Dining Room in Dean Street. In the last few months, though, a couple of alternatives have opened up - or at least come to my attention. And these share the advantage of being on quiet back streets untouched by Christmas, although close to the hub of things - just the places to put down one's heavy bags.
The Poetry Cafe takes up the bottom two floors of a Victorian town-house which houses the Poetry Society on Betterton Street, about two minutes walk from Covent Garden tube. If you think of poets as sensitive but shabby, you'll be pleased to know the small, ground-floor dining-room is white and modern in a clean, superficial way. You can see the food, also modern and simple, being put together behind a bar at the end of the room, and the whole show has a friendly feel. Large kilner jars display marinated anchovies, olives, salsa and tapenade, all made on the premises and all excellent.
Downstairs, it's true, things get more Existential, with couches and armchairs where you are invited to eat meals on your lap, or just sit around, drinking coffee and scribbling as the muse dictates. Artful black and white photos of Raymond Carver and Samuel Beckett grace the walls.
I visited the Poetry Cafe twice, once for supper, when we got the last table available, and once for lunch, when I had the choice of pretty much any table I wanted. We ate unusually well on both occasions. The short, imaginative menu, cooked almost single-handedly by the young Christopher Hewitt, changes at least once every four weeks: this month's choice includes seared breast of duck with sweet potato mash and spiced red cabbage, and roast cod with a confit of red onions. I ate an outstanding beetroot risotto - beautifully rich in colour and taste - and grilled swordfish with boiled potatoes and a fennel dressing. My fish was perfectly pink in the middle, like a seam of crystal running through a slab of pale slate; the fennel dressing mingled deliciously with my potatoes. On a weaker note, my companion's wild mushroom tortellini was hugely over-salted. Sad, really, because one could still detect the delicate fungi beneath the salt. First courses hover around pounds 4, mains around pounds 9; supper for two came to pounds 50, with wine, but without tip.
The Coffee Gallery opened three years ago on Museum Street, one of the network of streets by the British Museum that, with their antiquarian book shops, silversmiths, and small restaurants, seem untouched by time. Piero and Henrietta Amodio opened here five years ago with the intention of selling painted Tuscan earthenware, coffee and cakes, but the food has eclipsed the crockery, and the Gallery (although still unlicensed) now serves one of the best cafe lunches in town.
The Amodios offer genuine "Italian home cooking"; in other words, the things Italians do best but rarely for us: bread-rich soups, lovingly prepared salads, roasted vegetables which would gleam in the dark, and quite superb cakes. Dishes, drawn from an apparently endless repertoire, change daily. When I ate there, they were serving potato and artichoke frittata, a Sicilian salad of cauliflower, red onion and pecorino, and roasted winter vegetables with pesto (all around pounds 4). From earlier visits I remember, indeed can hardly forget, an excellent panzanella (salad of oil-soaked bread, raw onions and tomatoes), and a dish of flaked salt cod with caramelised onions and, I think, pine kernels. Be warned, though: the menu never includes more than five or six items, and the best go irritatingly quickly. Still, you can console yourself with an exceptionally fine espresso.
Nowadays, Henrietta runs the Gallery, and Piero is busy with other things. Habitat has asked him to take over a number of their cafes, with very happy results. The light and airy restaurant in the Kings Road store offers the same subtle, seasonal fare as you get in Museum Street - stuffed squid, a salad of sauteed Swiss chard and grilled radicchio, chicken sauteed with white wine and beer. The Tottenham Court Road branch has gone global with dishes from Asia, South America and Africa competing for a place. On a recent visit, I tried a bowl of Ajaco Bogotano, a spicy Colombian broth made from potato, chicken and sweet corn, and then a pear tart. The potion from Colombia proved amazingly restorative, the pear tart calming. I set out, emboldened, into the crowds. Soon it would be time for tea
The Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton St, London WC2 (0171-240 5081), Mon-Sat 11am-11.30pm, wheelchair access, major credit cards except American Express; Coffee Gallery 33 Museum St WC1 (0171-436 0455); Mon-Fri 8-5.30, Sat 10-5.30; Piero and Henrietta Amodios' cooking can also be found at Habitats in Finchley Rd, Croydon and DublinReuse content