IT'S not yet eight o'clock and already it's standing room only as a queue of hungry would-be diners wait patiently for a table at the Noodle Inn on London Road, Sheffield.
Those who cannot get a seat by the bar are filing back in a line to the door, nibbling on the free prawn crackers to ward off hunger pains.
Oddly, you don't get any crackers if you go straight to a table like us. We've the last one by the window.
One of Dawes's Rules of Restaurants is that if a place is that busy it must be doing something right. And another Rule states that if you see a lot of Chinese in Chinese restaurants (or Indians in Indian restaurants) then they're on to something.
Someone's using their noodle.
He's David Chan who opened the place around six or so years ago because he wanted to give the nearby Vietnamese Noodle Bar a run for its money.
David, who had been in charge of the Joyful Diner at Ranmoor (remember the steam and hiss as water ran constantly over the red hot ranges to keep them cool?) finally outran the Vietnamese Bar which has closed.
"We're starting a new menu soon. We've got to be on our toes as it's reopening soon," he says.
David's motto is pile it high and sell it cheap, easy-going food and lots of it at reasonable prices. It seems to work.
Attractive waiting staff in blue shirts and matching baseball caps bring a menu which seems as long as the Great Wall of China. It's not quite that and looks less daunting if you plan to have a 'big plate' of noodles, of which you get a choice, or rice, and then top it with whatever you fancy.
There are are also 'traditional dishes,' soups (I could almost drown in my bowl the last time I went) and a 'latest additions' menu which I only spotted after I had tried and failed to finish my main course.
If you still can't make up your mind there are set menus which start at under a tenner for two so you are pretty much spolied for choice.
The Noodle Inn, right in the heart of London Road's Chinatown, is not that big a place and it gets lively and noisy (and that's not just the female cackler on the table behind us) and it does have bags of atmosphere.
There's a big screen telly (with the sound turned down), what looks to be a little shrine with three apples by the door, a pair of those Chinese lucky cats with upraised paw on the bar and, everywhere you look, little essays on the walls exhorting the virtues of noodledom: udon, ho fun, flat rice or vermicelli.
Dining with David is still a joyful experience although sometimes it can be a hit and miss on the flavour, depending on what dishes you choose.
In fact, we ate close to what we'd had six years ago (the review is still in the window and framed on a wall) because we'd enjoyed it so much then.
Chicken satay (4.50) comes crispy on four big skewers with a delicious peanut sauce. My salt and chilli squid starter (6) is enough for a main course: the squid decently tender and the heat supplied by sliced red and green chillies with spring onion.
Each of the main courses could easily feed two. I had the Three Roasties which costs 6.50 which was, as before, beautifully roasted pork with properly crispy crackling and roast duck with brittle red, lacquered skin, sliced on the bone. This time I had it with rice, instead of noodles, a slightly disappointing clumpy egg-fried rice (an extra 50p).
When I had it last time I asked where the third roastie was and was directed to the square of pork crackling on top. I didn't see one this time but could hardly complain because the Two Roasties is exactly the same price.
Incidentally, while checking the menu online I came across the intriguingly-named exploding meatballs in the starters but negelected to ask why they were not on the menu handed over at the table.
Most of these dishes had been hits. My wife's crispy noodles with seafood (6) was a bit on the bland side - more squid, this time a little chewy, plentiful but muted flavoured king prawns and some mysterious objects which turned out to be fishballs.
Don't bother about deciding which of the freezer desserts to order. You get offered complimentary ones: ice cream or traditional Chinese mung bean soup. I've had this before so I wasn't too surprised but this is not necessarily to Western tastes. Think thinly sliced runner beans in a sweet broth and you won't go far wrong. Last time we went a waitress spilled chilli sauce all over my jacket. This time I took if off as a precaution but we didn't have any calamities.
The bill for food came to 24.30 and two beers added another 4.80. Smashing.
Address: 156 London Road, Sheffield S2 4LT.
Telephone: 0114 255 4488.
Open all week noon-11pm. Licensed (house 8.50) but also BYO. Credit cards. Street parking. Website: www.noodleinn.co.uk
My star ratings (out of five):
Chinese restaurant. Do not compare ratings between places of different style or price.
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