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Waiting on the Cafe Rouge revolution

As Whitbread takes over the Pelican Group, it steps into a market transformed by the growing appetite for Continental cuisine
In the Sixties the Italian trattoria ruled the high-street. In the Seventies the steak-house took over, and in the Eighties everything else paled beside minimalist nouvelle cuisine and the arrogant waiters of the restaurant boom-time.

But trends wax and wan and the Nineties have ushered invalue-for- money family outlets, themed restaurants and the Conran-inspired hangar- sized eateries of London.

Among these trends is that of the perfectly created replica of the fictional French cafe of our dreams. Yesterday, the catering giant Whitbread announced that it was buying the main creators of this genre, the Pelican Group, whose Dome and Cafe Rouge chains are now whipping up cappuccinos all over the country, while remaining strongest in the capital.

And they are all doing well. Research into the nation's eating habits revealed that Britons have turned into avid eaters-out, spending twice as much money in restaurants as they did 30 years ago.

"If you looked at restaurants in Britain in 1960 you'd think you were a Martian landing on a different planet," said David Harrolds, chief executive of the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) survey of 1,000 households in Bristol, Preston and London in April 1995 found that 94 per cent of the population had dined out in the past twelve months, on average once every three weeks.

"There was a very large increase in the proportion of meals eaten outside the home in the 1980s," said Simon Johnson, analyst for Barclays de Zoete Wedd. "It came about as the result of meals being slightly cheaper, the growing importance of the grey market - older people - having money to spend on eating out, and because people were more busy."

Restaurants blossomed, but the recession changed all that and hundreds were forced to close. "What we found in the recession was that people were prepared ... to go for less expensive meals, but they did not cut down on the number of occasions they went out," said Mr Johnson.

"Many restaurants at the lower end of the market did not suffer as much. The mid-price restaurants responded by offering special meals - three courses for pounds 4.95, all you can eat pizza and pasta buffets."

Pubs made inroads in the food market by smartening up their act, said Peter Love, general secretary of the National Association of Licensed House Managers. "Pub food has come a long way from a pie and a pint." he said.

The pub giants made themselves more family-friendly by developing children- focused outlets - purpose-built playbarns with names such as Wacky Warehouses, Jungle Bungles and Captain Coconuts.

In March the leisure group Allied Domecq announced a pounds 150m expansion. The emphasis was on family appeal with more Wacky Warehouses attached to the group's chain of Big Steak pubs. It is seen as a sound financial investment. Big Steak pubs tend to take five times as much money as the average managed house.

But for those who can afford a bit more, two of the most interesting developments of the 1990s have been the growth in theme restaurants and the trend to bigger and bigger.

On one side of Leicester Square stands Planet Hollywood, set up by Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, which features film memorabilia. Its new rival, still under construction ,is the Fashion Cafe started by the three supermodels Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Elle MacPherson. And the next development looks to be Marvel Mania, which promises to be the world's largest themed restaurant based on the Marvel comic-book heroes, Spiderman, Captain America and the Fantastic Four. All have followed in the footsteps of the Hard Rock Cafe "the granddaddy of theme restaurants", as Mr Harrolds described it.

Size does seem to matter. Last year Sir Terence Conran opened Mezzo which seats 700 and was billed as the largest restaurant in Europe.

Mezzo is just the latest example of the record-breaking scale among London restaurants. Other establishments opened recently included Belgo Centraal in Covent Garden, seating 400, the Atlantic Bar and Grill off Piccadilly for 250 and the hangar-sized People's Palace in the Festival Hall on the South Bank in London.

Despite these developments, and the wide range - Londoners can now taste the cuisine of over 50 countries - Britain is still far from being a nation of gourmets. In many suburban and rural parts of the country, the pub- cum-steak house reigns supreme.

All over the country, however, sociability remains the primary reason for eating out. "Quality and variety were not major themes," said Lydia Martens, co-author of the report for the ESRC. "It's seen as a way to meet friends, family meals or to escape doing the cooking".

The Pelican brief, page 16