Restaurants and pubs group Mitchells & Butlers said it was making progress on key board appointments ahead of a expected protest at its annual shareholder meeting over its lack of independent non-executive directors.

The firm, whose chains include Harvester, Toby Carvery and All Bar One, also posted better-than-expected Christmas sales.

M&B's annual shareholder meeting takes place later on Thursday in Birmingham against a backdrop of takeover speculation and boardroom upheaval.

Last year M&B, which has net debt of about 1.9 billion pounds, was the subject of two rejected bid approaches from its biggest shareholder, Joe Lewis, the billionaire currency trader and owner of English Premier League soccer club Tottenham Hotspur.

Lewis, who holds a stake of over 25 percent, aborted a 940 million pounds takeover offer in October and under takeover rules is prohibited from making another approach until April.

M&B has gone through six chairmen over the past two years and has been without a permanent chief executive since Adam Fowle departed last March.

Industry veteran Bob Ivell, a former managing director of Scottish & Newcastle's managed pubs division, is currently acting as executive chairman and leading the CEO search.

Good progress is being made to appoint a new CEO and to strengthen the board with additional non-executive directors, the firm said.

However, the Association of British Insurers (ABI), which represents about 20 percent of M&B's shareholders, has issued a 'red top' alert on the company, its strongest possible warning about governance concerns, singling it out as the only FTSE-350 firm which currently has no independent non-executive directors.

British corporate governance watchdog PIRC, which advises institutional investors, has called on its members to vote against the re-election of non-executives Doug McMahon and Ron Robson, representatives of Lewis.

M&B said sales at restaurants and pubs open more than a year grew 4.4 percent in the 17 weeks to January 21.

That compared with analyst expectations for growth of 2-3.5 percent, according to a Reuters poll, and reflected milder weather over the Christmas and New Year period compared with the previous year as well as strong demand for casual dining.

Although assisted by better weather, they (the figures) show that customers are still keen to treat themselves even in a difficult economic environment, said Ivell.

M&B, which has around 1,600 restaurants and pubs across Britain, said trading in January had been more subdued but consistent with the underlying like-for-like sales trend first noted in July last year of around 1 percent growth.

The firm is confident of further growth this year despite inflationary cost pressures in food, duty and energy.

Shares in M&B were unchanged at 258.8 pence at 0942 GMT, valuing the business at about 1.06 billion pounds.

Shore Capital analysts upgraded their recommendation from 'sell' to 'hold', retaining a 2011/12 pretax profit forecast of 172 million pounds.

We believe trading looks to have stabilised, with cost pressure under control, they said.

($1 = 0.6416 British pounds)

(Reporting by Matt Scuffham and James Davey; editing by Neil Maidment)