By eight o'clock on a Friday night, Becky Wallis, 22, is ensconced in her favourite bar, the Pitcher and Piano, in Fulham Road, London. She waves a half-full beer glass in the air and looks up lovingly at her boyfriend of 10 days, Nick Foden-Ellis, whom she describes as a captain in the paras.

'Me and my girlfriends call this place the meat market of Fulham,' she yells over a throng of about 50 people. She pushes Mr Foden-Ellis proudly in my direction. 'Last week he picked me up here with the old taxi gag; you know, I'll run you home, sort of thing.' Mr Foden-Ellis grins haplessly. 'I like the fact all the men are well-heeled here,' shouts Ms Wallis. 'All the girls here know that we can end up with a good catch.'

The chain of Pitcher and Piano bars offer probably the only surviving venues where the spirit of the Eighties is rekindled on a nightly basis. Problem with cash? The bar will set up a tab for you. Difficulty with finding a mate? The Pitcher supplies your missing half with laughable ease. Its chic-looking decor and potted plants disguise the fact that, in the words of one of the bar staff, it is simply 'the biggest pick-up joint in town'.

The Pitcher and Piano chain, founded in 1987 by Crispin Tweddell, 47, a former design consultant, is in a different galaxy from the normal league of wine bars or pubs. On a bitter December night, the queue outside is 30 deep; inside, the Fulham Road branch is heaving with about 300 people, all getting into that special Pitcher mood, lubricated by pitchers of Budweiser at pounds 8 for four pints, or wine that starts at pounds 9 a bottle.

Surveyors, stockbrokers, doctors, Army officers and other 'professional people' josh over their jugs of frothing beer. Almost everyone is inspected by the opposite gender as a potential partner.

The Pitcher and Piano is set to hit the big time; the Trafalgar Square branch, the newest and biggest, this week opened its doors to a potential 500 fun-loving customers. Edinburgh, Oxford, Bath, Brighton and Leeds are just a few of the cities being sized up for the future.

'Why do I come here?' shouts Mark Case, an account manager. 'The waitresses are nice, it's very upper middle class, so there's no fighting and it's like a pub with no plebs.' A small battalion of soldiers from Aldershot joins me. 'We look at it like it's an officer's mess,' one says. 'Much better than a pub. A pub has a kind of dark atmosphere. There's not a sad person in this bar.' Or one with no job, from an ethnic minority, or over 40, one feels.

With Mediterranean-style green shuttered windows, snazzy dried flower arrangements and casually arty pictures, this place is not for the nouveau riche, alternative thinkers, clubbers, minorities, the worse-off, the happily married, or any combination of the above. The woman on the door sums it up: 'Our customers are young, mostly single and, er, public school.'

'OK, you shouldn't talk of classes,' says Andrew Bagley, 26-year-old managing director of Ionitherme Beauty Products, who is having a quick champagne before going off to a black-tie ball at the In and Out club in Piccadilly. 'But there's a different type of person here. Everyone has a prospect.'

'You're on a social par with everyone here,' says Rupert Trotter, a 23-year-old Old Harrovian broker with Kleinwort Benson. 'There aren't any yuppies, no one so offensive. It's older money.' But 'older money' has the same human needs as 'newer money' - or even 'no money at all'. Mr Bagley leans over conspiratorially. 'Of course, women feel OK to come here on their own, which is a big factor for the place. Please don't write this, but it really is a pick-up joint.'

This is the Pitcher's real achievement; by looking bright, light, and by selling itself as a pub that isn't really a pub, it can attract women by the lorry load. 'Any individual women can come to a Pitcher any night of the week,' says Crispin Tweddell.

Described by Mr Tweddell as 'a delightful place where you can meet friends', the Pitcher and Piano is depicted somewhat differently by those who patronise it. 'Just before you walk in, you have to take a deep breath,' says Miranda Bell, a 24-year-old nanny. 'You know you are going to be scrutinised by everybody. But the majority of people in there are just looking for a Mr or Miss Right Now,' she continues sadly, 'as opposed to a Mr or Ms Right. It's merely a way to while away a few hours.'

Admitting she visits the Pitcher once a week, she speaks of it as one might of an unsatisfactory drug. 'Everyone is hungry for love; they know they won't find it here, but they keep coming back. The average relationship made here lasts only a couple of weeks.'

By drinking-up time, the chat-up level has intensified and the sophisticated 'look' of the Pitcher utterly dispersed. An innocent sortie to the bar results in a barrage of one-liners, as bedtime arrangements are sorted out and the not-yet-spoken-for panic about being left with no one to go home with. 'If you're still alone by five to eleven, you'll end up really dredging the barrel,' Ms Bell advises. 'Frankly, you're better off going home with a takeaway and coming back next week.'

(Photograph omitted)