Dressed to eat and chat, they are at your local restaurant now - groups of women having lunch. NIGEL JARRETT gained admission to the inner sanctum to find out what makes them tick

"LADIES Who Lunch" used to be label that was hardly ever supported by observation, certainly not in the culinary desert that was Gwent before the top chefs arrived.

Now there are classy restaurants galore. And older women enjoying themselves socially are among their most frequent customers.

Everywhere you go, it seems, groups of them are tucking into good food, sorting out the world's problems and deciding when next to meet at table.

It's a long throw from the time when a woman thought twice about turning up at a restaurant or caf alone and waiting for her friends to arrive.

Thirty years ago, it would have been a caf because restaurants were thin on the ground. You didn't dress up to go for a coffee, and you certainly didn't spend the afternoon there twirling your greasy spoon under the glare of the equally greasy owner.

Lady lunchers Chris Logan, Shirley Barry and Linda Watkins much prefer the sophisticated ambience of restaurants such as The Chandlery at Newport and the attentions of its superb award-winning chef, Simon Newcombe.

The girls do a stint at the nearby World of Fitness health club, run by the effervescent Chris Williams, then repair to The Chandlery about once a month for their midday meal.

"It's a great consolidating thing," said Linda, from Cwmbran. "This way you get to know people even better and it's a nice atmosphere in which to do it, and by the time we've had a chat, lunch lasts quite a while."

So what do they talk about?

"Mainly our figures - our lumps of fat - and men and our children," said Chris, from Rogerstone. "But we talk about everything really, including the Charles and Camilla business, but our views on that are unrepeatable. I just hope his mother lives a long time!"

What they like about lunching is the seating and the lack of intrusive music, so that they can eat and chat without inhibition.

"It's also the food and the fact that places put on lunchtime menus that are not so expensive," said Linda. "The atmosphere is nice and it's better than going to a pub."

Chris said it was good to have a place to meet for a meal where a woman felt comfortable. The alternative used to be a caf in town or a pub, where there was a different atmosphere and it could be noisy and smoky.

"We never have enough time to cover all the topics we want to talk about," she said. "And, naturally, a glass of wine always helps to oil the wheels."

They might talk about men but ladies who lunch, by definition, don't include them. It would be difficult to imagine women in mixed company talking to each other with the same freedom they exercise in all-female settings.

"They obviously have business lunches but I think this sort of thing will develop among men in time," said Linda.

Chris said: "It's always been a ladies' thing. Women used to meet in teashops for tea and crumpets. Yes, we do gossip - but men gossip too, though I think we are more used to talking about our problems."

Shirley, also from Rogerstone, thought men probably had fewer topics of conversation, sport being one of them, which meant that their lunches didn't last long. "Ours go on to about 4pm," she said.

She also enjoys line-dancing with Chris and they have found that the women continue their friendships after coming together for the dance sessions.

"It's also nice to be able to dance if you don't have a husband," Shirley said.

There's also a knock-on effect, in that the ladies do other things - such as going to the theatre - as a result of the friendships made in various group activities. And they are convinced that friendships struck by keeping fit together and lunching will continue if someone stops doing it for any reason.

"I met up with someone through classes who has now finished and lives in Cardiff but we still see each other occasionally," said Linda.

From taking part in all these activities together, the ladies have widened their circle of friends and lunching together is a natural extension of that.

"We don't have much chance to talk when we are doing a keep-fit class," Linda said. "We are too out of breath. Lunching together cements friendships. When you have time to talk you find out more about each other."

But not without an appetite, it seems, even with lunch considered.

"I usually cook in the evening," said Shirley. "If I have a good lunch I snack in the afternoon, but I still have something cooked later on. This is why I go to keep-fit. It means I can eat! I like cooking now I have a dishwasher.

"The food in restaurants is also much better because they now have to compete with each other."

Linda said it was useful to lunch straight after keep fit. "You come with a healthy frame of mind and it reflects what you eat," she said.

"It's a lifestyle," the three of them opined, more or less in unison.

l Main picture,clockwise from left: Shirley Barry, Chris Logan, Linda Watkins, Joan Davies, Julie Stoodley and Christine Williams