This week, the news broke that Jamie Oliver’s collection of restaurants may have to go into administration. Critics of Oliver and the chain restaurant in general rejoiced. Many of the food writers I have grown up adoring look down their nose at the sheer audacity of a chain restaurant. And while I can certainly understand how their lack of originally could grate on someone used to the finer things in life, I still find myself asking this question: are chain restaurants REALLY that bad?
I visited Jamie’s Trattoria in Chelmsford once. I enjoyed the food (I went for my standard choice of carbonara which I have been eating every time I visit an Italian for just short of ten years). The food was OK, fairly decent actually. The atmosphere wasn’t great. I don’t remember a great deal about it, but I review a lot of restaurants.
Now I fall more into the London Lifestyle blogger category than Essex, I miss reviews like this.
If you want to spend your evening listening to the people next to you talk about Judith’s son being caught speeding or have an elbow in your penne then this is probably a good choice for you. The obvious situation was that they had squeezed in as many tables as possible to make the most amount of money they can. Which is why it is so interesting that it didn’t survive. Other chain restaurants manager to thrive, no matter how unimaginative their food is.
Take the Harvester for example. Just when you think you have stamped out the Harvester in your town you raise your foot and realise, that, like cockroaches, five more have appeared in it’s place. I mean, literally, HOW? Harvester restaurants don’t even have any balsamic vinegar for Christ sake. Nando’s always seems to do incredibly well, whether the actual branch you visit is cheeky or not. Pick out any chain restaurant and I could list about twenty things wrong with it.
But do you know what?
There are also a lot of things RIGHT with chain restaurants. Like the price, for example. Not everyone can afford to eat at Sushi Samba or Goucho. Why should budgetary limitations stop people from getting together for a catch up and a chat over dinner? Some of my best memories are from meals at the Harvester, and it’s not because of the food. I couldn’t even tell you what I had to eat the last time I was in a Harvester, but I can tell you it was the first time my best friend and I went out for dinner in about ten years. I would have remembered the same thing had we eaten somewhere more expensive. The occasion, not the dish.
Another great thing about chain restaurants is there are no surprises. The menus are consistent. And you know what to expect. “What is your Nando’s order” is a legitimate question that can be asked when getting to know a new person. You really can tell a lot about someone from what they order at Nando’s and by what spice they have (if you have lemon and herb, you are what we call in Basildon, a “pussy hole”).
Then there is the simplicity. If you want a table at Pizza Express you could walk right in when you are hungry and probably get a table. Phone the day before and you could probably nab a huge family table at your local Beefeater. But try and get a table somewhere good in London the next day and you’ll be laughed off of the phone. Next week, also impossible. Try next month or year. Can you plan being hungry that far in advance?
So despite the fact I find Jamie Oliver to be one of the most annoying humans on the planet, second place only to Jess Glynne, I’m sad to see his collection of restaurants go. The dishes might not have been groundbreaking, the loss of his chain restaurant is another step on the austerity ladder that is just making nice things further and further out of reach for those who truly deserve them. Frankie and Benny’s even deliver now. What a time to be alive!!! Here’s a handy link for them: 40% off Click and Collect