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Quaglino's, London

Quaglino's restaurant in London's West End has not always been everyone's favorite restaurant. Some say it's too glitzy and impersonal. But the prevailing wisdom these days is that it has become one of London's liveliest, and best designed, restaurants. Whatever you hear, it's worth a visit for a pleasant brasserie-style meal, a cigar and a drink.

With 338 seats, Quaglino's is one of London's largest eateries, and it is reminiscent of bustling, expansive Parisian brasseries such as La Coupole. Almost $4 million was spent refurbishing the restaurant before it opened in 1993, all done under the guidance of design guru and extremely keen cigar man, Sir Terence Conran. Sir Terence owns a number of excellent restaurants in London besides Quaglino's, including Bibendum and Pont de la Tour, as well as the city's finest home furnishings store, The Conran Shop.

The design of the restaurant is breathtaking, especially considering its subterranean location. The dull main entrance gives no indication of what is ahead. Once you reach the mezzanine level to leave your coats and to be greeted, you are captured by the restaurant's electrifying cavernous space. Looking down from the mezzanine on to the main floor, you feel like you are viewing a massive movie or opera set, with the hundreds of customers and waiters before your feet playing out some sort of food fantasy. The noise, lighting and odors arouse all your senses.

To reach the main restaurant, you pass the bar on the left and then walk down a sweeping staircase with a balustrade of iron and bronze Q's. Entering the restaurant is everyone's five seconds of fame as people gaze up from their chairs and banquettes. Many of the customers are famous. In fact, it's a great place to see and to be seen, a place where international celebrities mix with local bank managers and car dealers from the suburbs.

Be sure to ask for a banquette in the center or along the side of the restaurant. They are more comfortable and you are in a better position to watch the goings-on. The kitchen and huge seafood bar are just as amusing to watch as are the customers. The massive kitchen alone cost almost a half million dollars to build.

The table service is friendly, quick and efficient, and finding something good to eat is easy. The food is simple and satisfying. Of course, this is not haute cuisine, but it is excellent brasserie food, including the best selection of shellfish in London. Starters such as the sardine and pepper bruschetta, spinach and Parmesan tart or marinated char-grilled vegetables are pleasing, and you'll finish each dish with relish. Main courses are equally delicious, with simple lobster salads and rock oysters to grilled steaks, poultry and fish. A confit of duck on a bed of arugula was the equal of Paris. Also, be sure to order plenty of the delightfully thin and crisp french fries.

By dessert time, it's easy to be full, but it's worth saving room if you like classics such as crème brûlée, lemon tart or apple bread pudding. They are all delicious.

The wine list is small but well-chosen and not too expensive. Brasserie classics such as Champagne, Alsatian and Loire whites, as well as Beaujolais and Burgundy, are there in abundance, but more interesting reds from South Africa, Australia and Chile are also available. Ask for the reserve list if you're into wine. I chose a lovely bottle of 1989 Mazis-Chambertin from Armand Rousseau at $72 a bottle, which was less expensive than when it was released on the market.

Don't forget to light up a cigar at the end of the meal, and ask the cigarette/cigar girl to bring her wares down for inspection. In the past, the selection and condition of the cigars have not always been top-notch, although on a recent visit the Montecristo No. 5, Punch Margaritas and Romeo y Julieta coronas were all in good shape. I usually bring my own, since she never has large cigars available.

With a cigar and a good espresso in hand, it's a nice feeling to watch the gray smoke of your cigar rise to the top of the high glass ceiling. Some people may not flock to Quaglino's, but they probably aren't big cigar smokers anyway.

-- James Suckling

16 Bury Street
Phone: (44)1 71 930-6767
Fax: (44)1 71 839-2866
Dinner: about $55 to $65 per person, including wine

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