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In London, Dinner and Drama

By Sharon Watson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 19, 2003; Page E01

London, once a culinary wilderness, is now hailed by many as one of the restaurant capitals of the world. Only Paris has more Michelin-starred restaurants.

That doesn't necessarily mean a good meal is easy to find -- and it's particularly true in Theatreland, the treasury of playhouses in the city's West End where it is possible to dine very expensively and very poorly at the same time.

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All too often theater-goers in search of convenient dining, faced with the staggering number of choices, find themselves in restaurants that turn out to be memorable for all the wrong reasons. But, in fact, many wonderful, atmospheric restaurants are near the top shows -- perhaps just around the corner or tucked away on a nearby side street.

As a theater enthusiast, I've been a frequent visitor to London over the past 20-plus years and have had my share of disappointing meals. Like many, I used to emerge from a show at 10:30 p.m. and pop into the nearest restaurant that looked appealing. Not a good idea if you're interested in dining and not just eating.

The following Theatreland restaurants are ones I enjoy returning to and happily recommend to friends. I've kept in mind that while good food, value and service are essential, it is ambiance that often makes the difference between a great meal and a great evening. The listings include the theaters nearest to each establishment, as well as prices (in U.S. dollars), hours and menu suggestions. Reservations are recommended.

Criterion Grill

Nearest theaters: Criterion, Prince of Wales, Lyric, Apollo, Comedy, Her Majesty's, Haymarket.

The Criterion, a dazzling Moorish fantasy a world removed from the clamor of Piccadilly Circus, is the culinary temple of Marco Pierre White, the first British chef to earn three Michelin stars. While he no longer does the cooking, his signature is clearly on the menu of artfully prepared classics such as French onion soup ($12), French toast with wild mushrooms ($12), grilled salmon with tomato vinaigrette ($23), roast chicken ($26), steak bearnaise ($27) and lemon tart ($12).

A prix fixe menu is available at lunch (noon-2:30 p.m.) and dinner (with 5:30 or 6:30 p.m. reservations); two courses are $24, three courses $29. Recent selections included endive, goat cheese and walnut salad, pork tenderloin and banana tart with homemade ice cream.

224 Piccadilly W1, telephone 011-44-20-7930-0488. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner. Tube stop: Piccadilly Circus.

L'Estaminet

Nearest theaters: Albery, Arts, Wyndham's, Duke of York's, Garrick.

L'Estaminet, set in a former stained-glass factory, brings French flair to Covent Garden. An old-fashioned bistro with golden-hued walls, exposed brick and soft lighting, it features an ever-changing menu with everything from excellent fish and chips ($23) to chateaubriand for two ($50). And while the fresh fruit tarts are tempting ($9), the cheese board is even more enticing.

A pre-theater menu (5:45-7:30 p.m.) offers three courses for $22 Monday through Friday, $25 on Saturday. There are two choices in each category, with grilled fish usually offered as one of the mains.

14 Garrick St. WC2, telephone 011-44-20-7379-1432. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. Tube stop: Covent Garden or Leicester Square.

Langan's Brasserie

Nearest theaters: Criterion, Piccadilly, Prince of Wales, Her Majesty's.


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