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.

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.

Langan's, once co-owned by actor Michael Caine, has been a see-and-be-seen kind of place for decades. Original modern art and soft colors combine to create a chic atmosphere to match the smart crowd. Yet behind its layers of style lies a kitchen with an affection for British home cooking.

Thus, you'll usually find bangers and mash (sausage links and mashed potatoes, $22), hot potted shrimp on toast ($9), fish and chips ($23) and apricot/whiskey bread pudding ($7) on the lengthy menu, along with beautifully rendered bistro classics such as veal cordon bleu ($24) and roasted stuffed chicken ($21).

Stratton Street W1, telephone 011-44-20-7491-8822. Open Monday-Friday for lunch, Monday-Saturday for dinner. Tube stop: Green Park. Red Fort

Nearest theaters: Prince Edward, Palace, Phoenix, Queens, London Palladium.

When Red Fort opened in the early '80s, it received raves from critics and set a new standard for the city's Indian restaurants. Today, this pretty restaurant is still at the top of its game, though the field is now crowded with competition. Standout specialties include monkfish with a coriander and yogurt sauce ($25), roasted leg of lamb ($24) and chicken with coriander and red chilies ($19).

A pre-theater menu (5:45-7 p.m.) with two courses is $25. Starters include prawns in a light batter, roasted sweet potato with pear, nectarine and green apple, and tandoori chicken with cloves; main course options include roasted salmon with ginger and honey, and vegetable dumplings in a light tomato sauce. A similar offer at lunch (noon-3 p.m.) is $19 for two courses.

77 Dean St. W1, telephone 011-44-20-7437-2115. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Tube stop: Tottenham Court Road. Rowley's

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

A sweet little restaurant with an Edwardian interior, Rowley's is on elegant Jermyn Street, which runs parallel to Piccadilly. Its specialty is charcoal-grilled Scottish steak and breast of Sussex chicken with an herb butter sauce. Both specialties ($26) are served with unlimited French fries, and if you're still hungry a second steak or chicken breast is an additional $6.

But save room for dessert ($9): It might be warm polenta tart with Marsala or plum strudel with clotted cream.

113 Jermyn St. SW1, telephone 011-44-20-7930-2707. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Tube stop: Piccadilly Circus.

Terrace

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

For a view that rivals the food, look no further than Terrace, a lovely, sophisticated glass-domed restaurant in Le Meridien Piccadilly hotel. It's the first London venture of chef Michel Rostang, who brings with him the style of his Parisian bistros and two Michelin stars.

Seafood entrees are always top-notch, with choices such as sea bass with buttered beans and asparagus ($30) and pan-fried scallops with roasted potatoes ($35). The braised breast of veal served with a stuffed tomato ($28) is another winner. End with chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream ($14) or apple tart ($11).

A pre-theater menu (6-7 p.m.) offers two courses for $26. Choices sometimes include lobster and vegetable consomme or green lentil salad with scallop puree to start, followed by pan-fried red mullet with sauteed potatoes or creamy white mushroom risotto.

21 Piccadilly W1, telephone 011-44-20-7465-1642. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Tube stop: Piccadilly Circus.

Christopher's

Nearest theaters: Lyceum, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Duchess, Strand, Aldwych, Fortune.

American-style fare is the star at this handsome restaurant in a converted 19th-century casino that was once a Covent Garden bordello. Big steaks ($30-$40) and lobsters ($45) are its specialty, along with American classics such as Maryland crab cakes with red pepper mayo ($14), New England "Clam Bake" ($27) and pecan pie with maple bourbon ice cream ($11).

A prix fixe is available all evening; two courses are $21, three courses $26 (choices include Caesar salad, pasta or risotto of the day, grilled trout with brown butter, braised beef with a Parmesan popover, and pecan pie).

18 Wellington St. WC, telephone 011-44-20-7240-4222. Open daily for lunch, Monday-Saturday for dinner. Tube stop: Covent Garden.

Joe Allen

Nearest theaters: Savoy, Lyceum, Vaudeville, Adelphi, Duchess, Strand, Aldwych, Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Housed in the basement of a converted warehouse near the Savoy, Joe Allen is an homage to stateside sensibility. Inside, brick walls covered with posters and a piano man bashing out show tunes will make you think you're in New York.

The menu changes daily, except for perennial faves like the great eggs Benedict ($13). There are good burgers, too, although they don't show up on the menu. The black bean soup ($7), chili ($14) and barbecued spare ribs ($18) are other popular standbys. Desserts ($7) include slabs of pecan pie and New York cheesecake.

A pre-theater menu from Monday to Saturday (5-6:45 p.m.) offers two courses for $22, three for $26. Selections may include pecan-crusted goat cheese with fruit chutney, vegetable lasagna and chocolate rum cake.

13 Exeter St. WC, telephone 011-44-20-7836-0651. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Tube stop: Covent Garden.

Orso

Nearest theaters: Savoy, Lyceum, Vaudeville, Adelphi, Duchess, Strand, Aldwych, Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

In the same building as Joe Allen, but with its entrance just around the corner, is this Tuscan charmer. Tucked away in a spacious basement, the dining room is casually chic, with black-and-white photos and wooden floorboards.

While the menu changes daily, count on great pasta dishes ($13-$15) and wonderful thin-crust pizzas ($8-$14), along with specialties such as roast sea bass with spinach, onion and a potato tart ($26) and slow-roast crispy pork with sage potatoes and apple ($23). Dessert ($9) might be peach almond tart or warm rice pudding with red plums.

A pre-theater menu from Monday through Saturday (5-6:45 p.m.) offers two courses for $26, three for $29. Recent selections have included fennel and sage soup or grilled vegetable salad to start, followed by a main course of rigatoni with wild mushrooms in a Parmesan cream sauce or grilled monkfish with roasted peppers. Desserts include tiramisu.

27 Wellington St. WC, telephone 011-44-20-7240-5269. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Tube stop: Covent Garden.

Mon Plaisir

Nearest theaters: Cambridge, Donmar Warehouse, Palace, Prince Edward, New Ambassadors, Phoenix.

This family-owned restaurant has been seducing diners for more than 60 years with its wonderful food and French atmosphere. Like its decor, the menu remains firmly old-fashioned. Old favorites fill the menu: onion soup ($10), Coquilles Saint Jacques ($24), coq au vin ($22) and thin apple tart with a caramel sauce ($9).

A pre-theater menu (5:45-7:15 p.m.) offers two courses for $22, three for $26 (including a glass of house wine). The soup du jour or Caesar salad with char-grilled chicken are the current starters, with leg of duck in a red wine sauce or roast salmon available for the main; dessert is either ice cream or chocolate mousse.

21 Monmouth St. WC2, telephone 011-44-20-7836-7243. Open Monday-Friday for lunch, Monday-Saturday for dinner. Tube stop: Covent Garden or Leicester Square. Rules

Nearest theaters: Adelphi, Savoy, Vaudeville, Duke of York's, Garrick.

You can bask in antiquity -- and classic game cooking -- at Rules, London's oldest restaurant. Through the centuries it has been a favorite haunt of writers, actors and even royalty. Bowlers and umbrellas hang from ancient hat racks, and cozy nooks are named for historic patrons.

Waiters in long white aprons dart about bearing cheese and walnut tart with spiced pear and apple chutney ($11), scrambled eggs and smoked salmon ($13), pheasant casserole ($24), roast breast of wild duck ($31), steak and kidney pie ($24), roast beef with Yorkshire pudding ($29), pistachio cre{grv}me bru^le{acute}e ($10) and blackberry crumble with vanilla custard ($10).

A $32 prix-fixe menu is offered Monday through Thursday (3-5 p.m.); choose any first course and main.

35 Maiden Lane WC2, telephone 011-44-20-7836-5314. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Tube stop: Covent Garden or Charing Cross.

Luigi's of Covent Garden

Nearest theaters: Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Lyceum, Strand, Aldwych, Fortune, Duchess, Vaudeville, Adelphi.

Luigi's is a true trattoria, with a joyful simplicity in both decor and menu. It offers familiar favorites such as spaghetti Bolognese ($14), penne Arrabiata ($14) and veal Marsala ($23). Venison stew with polenta is sometimes a special. Dessert ($10) might be profiteroles or apple tart with a caramel sauce and ice cream.

A pre-theater menu (5:30-7:30 p.m.) offers two courses for $18, three for $22; choices include mozzarella, tomato and avocado salad, grilled Scotch salmon with creamed potatoes and peas, and cheesecake.

15 Tavistock St. WC2, telephone 011-44-20-7240-1795. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. Tube stop: Covent Garden.

Le Cafe du Jardin

Nearest theaters: Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Lyceum, Strand, Aldwych, Fortune, Duchess.

A pleasant French-style brasserie, Le Cafe du Jardin offers lively Mediterranean dishes. Specialties include crab cake with spring onion risotto ($10), angel hair pasta with smoked chicken and chilies ($15), grilled swordfish with a lemon grass and ginger dressing ($20) and grilled veal chop with tarragon butter ($26).

A prix fixe is offered Monday through Friday (noon-3 p.m., 5-7 p.m., 10 p.m.-midnight), Saturdays (noon-7 p.m., 10 p.m.-midnight) and Sunday (noon-11 p.m.). Two courses are $18, three are $23. Choices include pea and sweet corn risotto, salmon with mashed potatoes, breast of chicken with couscous in a red wine sauce, and white and dark chocolate mousse.

28 Wellington St. WC2, telephone 011-44-20-7836-8769. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Tube stop: Covent Garden.

The Ivy

Nearest theaters: St. Martin's, New Ambassadors, Arts, Cambridge, Palace, Donmar Warehouse, Prince Edward.

The Ivy seems to be on just about everyone's list of favorite London restaurants. Stained-glass windows and walls of contemporary British art create a dramatic backdrop for its impeccable food and service.

Its lengthy menu has something for everyone: leek and wild mushroom tart ($14), gnocchi with Gorgonzola and spinach ($18), fish and chips ($23), roast duck ($30), sticky toffee pudding ($10) and apple crumble ($9).

Saturdays and Sundays, a popular three-course lunch is $28 (with three choices in each category, including asparagus and Parmesan tart, roasted chicken, fillet of sea bass and Italian sponge cake with raspberries).

1 West St. WC2, telephone 011-44-20-7836-4751. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Tube stop: Covent Garden or Leicester Square.

Giovanni's

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

With Giovanni's entrance tucked away in an 18th-century alley, you'll think you're having a secret rendezvous. It is rustically elegant, with beamed ceilings and white stucco walls.

The menu changes often; recent selections have included chicken pasta soup ($10), homemade spinach gnocchi ($13), baked sea bass ($28) and grilled Dover sole ($31).

10 Goodwin's Ct. (St. Martin's Lane) WC, telephone 011-44-20-7240-2877. Open Monday-Friday for lunch, Monday-Saturday for dinner. Tube stop: Leicester Square.

Sharon Watson, a writer in Cabin John, Md., is the author of "Dining in London's Theatreland" (Britain Books).

In London, the Red Fort, near a slew of West End playhouses, is one of many restaurants offering tasty pre- and post-theater meals.With its Edwardian interior, Rowley's is as ornate as some London theaters -- if they served Scottish steak.At Rules, you can eat a prix-fixe dinner before the show for $32.Christopher's offers a taste of America in London's West End, including Maryland crab cakes and pecan pie.