Fish restaurants are often the sort of places where a certain type of man with corporate ambitions would take a potential wife to see if she knew how to hold her knife and could avoid squirting lobster onto the next-door table. They divide, generally, into two types: linen cloths, fan-folded napkins and waiters who pour your wine with thumb and two fingers, or net-and-seaweed faux-rustic with false stone walls and nosy neighbours. Either way, many people associate fish-dining with trying not to touch the table with their elbows while red-faced suits eat cod and chips with a knife and fork.
Fortunately, it's not always like that. Livebait, the popular and un- pompous South Bank fishery, has recently opened a new restaurant in Covent Garden. No fooling about with doilies here: the spanky two-tone-tiled interior is more pre-blitz Scarborough than a place for intimidating your date, and tables are pleasantly isolated by booths and screens. A jolly, if rather bright, bar serves a frightening selection of beers and stouts to go with your oysters, or a crustacean platter (rock and native oysters, crevettes, langoustine, Atlantic prawns, cockles, whelks, mussels), which must be worth pounds 9.95 of anybody's money.
Clientele tucking in to a daily-changing menu in the restaurant still belong, on the whole, to the professional tendency, but in relaxed mode: if you enjoy carnivore behaviour, there are few sights to beat that of a young solicitor ripping a bowl of prawns limb from limb. Food is imaginative, pretty and substantial, and cheerful staff dish out as many tips as the diners do. They even cater for vegetarians who warn them in advance, a self-defeating exercise if ever I saw one, but full marks for willingness. Go here if you want to talk full-throttle, eat with your fingers, spot micro-celebs. Don't if you want to name-drop, wear a bib or keep your jacket on. pounds 30 will buy two courses and half a bottle of wine, but think more in terms of pounds 40 if you want samphire chips and stickies.
Livebait, 21 Wellington St, WC2 7DN (0171-836 7161) and 41-45 The Cut, SE1 (0171-928 7211)