Linley's diner follows trend of celebrity cafes - and fails

THE CHRISTMAS lights are twinkling, the music is defiantly up- beat and there is even a half-price Screaming Orgasm on offer. But it takes more than cheap cocktails to fill a restaurant, as Viscount Linley, the Queen's nephew, has discovered to his cost.

Deals, Lord Linley's chain of upmarket burger bars, is up for sale, the latest celebrity-backed dining venture to collide with harsh economic reality. Other casualties include the Fashion Cafe, placed in receivership six weeks ago, and Planet Hollywood, which recently plunged into loss.

Industry analysts are not surprised that Deals is being sold. The market is saturated, they say, and fears of recession are keeping diners at home. The restaurants feeling the pinch most keenly are those that rely on a glitzy theme, rather than on a reputation for quality food.

Deals was launched amid a blaze of publicity in 1988 by Lord Linley and his cousin, Lord Lichfield, the society photographer. It was to be an "upmarket works canteen", combining smart decor and an eclectic menu - a place to cut business deals, Eighties-style.

The founders' connections meant a glamorous cast of customers initially, including Diana, Princess of Wales, and the actor Jason Donovan. But since 1995 the three-outlet London chain has been in the red.

At lunchtime on Friday, the West End branch was virtually empty, save for a few shoppers spooning the froth off their cappuccinos. Two men in pinstripes munched morosely on Teriyaki Burgers.

Similarly, poor trade led to the ignominious demise of the Fashion Cafe, fronted by supermodels Naomi Campbell,Claudia Schiffer and Elle Macpherson, and the travails of Planet Hollywood, the hamburger group owned by Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There are countless other cautionary tales. Opposite Planet Hollywood in Piccadilly Circus, for instance, is the former site of a sandwich bar opened by the pop singer Gary Glitter in 1994. The Glitter Bar closed after just eight months.

Other star-studded ventures have fared better, such as the five smart London restaurants in which actor Michael Caine is a partner, which include Langan's Brasserie and The Canteen. Another survivor is Sticky Fingers, owned by the former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman."The rock theme is great for the one-off visit, but it's the food that brings people back again," said a spokesman.

There is a chill wind, though, blowing through the industry, and last week's news of a clampdown on expense account lunches made restaurateurs shiver.The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank has set a pounds 30-a-head limit on corporate entertaining, and other City firms are following suit. Egon Ronay, the veteran restaurant critic, calls this "worrisome".

"It will certainly bite; no question of it," he said. "We will be seeing business people keeping an eye on the right-hand side of the wine list and directing their guests' attention to the set-meal menu."

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