I’m not terribly discriminating about food. I can taste the difference between exceptional and mediocre food, but the impact of that difference is rarely devastating. My day has never been ruined by an indifferent fondant.
I’m not sure that this lack of discrimination is a particular drawback. I’m discriminating in other areas of my life and it’s not always that much fun. It makes for a lot of unfinished books, dissatisfying cinema visits and disappointing albums. Maybe it would be nice sometimes to turn the television on and think ‘Splendid! James May and Oz Clarke. I like them no better and no less than any other presenters.’ Perhaps the urge to develop discriminating tastes is just the urge to become less happy.
So I find restaurant critics a curious breed. Food is such a central part of all our lives and yet for them it is so often fraught with disappointment and anger. Sometimes the things they put in their mouth do not taste as they would ideally like and this upsets them. Sometimes the service they receive is not up to their expectations and then comes the incredulity and rage. Eating out is difficult for them and yet it is their job.
Difficult not just because of the disappointment, but also the pain and hassle of searching for places to eat. Their abhorrence of the High Street means they are all too often forced to eat in hard to find restaurants way off the beaten track – Cotswold villages, country hotels, down at heel seaside towns. Whilst a music critic might review a new Coldplay album, or a film critic cover the latest Scorcese film, a restaurant critic simply cannot write about the new Harvester menu – it’s too ghastly to contemplate. Future historians will plough through the millions and millions of words produced by restaurant critics and have no idea at all about the general experience of eating out in this country.
I quite like eating in chain restaurants. If you’re somebody who ‘quite likes’ things, then chain restaurants are for you. Nothing to get carried away about. Easy, familiar, usually edible, fairly cheap. Sometimes, if you’re lucky enough to have the money, it’s good to go out and have exquisitely prepared food, made from the highest quality ingredients and served with real care. Often though it’s equally good to go out, eat something entirely unremarkable and enjoy the delights that chain restaurants have to offer.
My favourite chain restaurants are the ‘traditional English’ style. These are defined not by serving exclusively English food (whatever you imagine that might be) – there may be a Belgian waffle, there will certainly be a vegetable lasagne – but rather by not serving exclusively non-English food. They are further defined by carpet. Carpeting, it seems, is very English. For me, a key part of the charm of these places is their invisibility. Critics don’t review them and we quite often, simply don’t see them. The four or so interchangeable and uncarpeted High St ‘Italian’ pizza chains are relatively visible. They often occupy prime locations, their branding is recognisable and effective. But for ‘trad-Eng’ restaurants, mediocrity, familiarity, a lack of contemporary styling and perhaps even carpeting, ensure that they don’t really register on our consciousness at all. Glimpsed from the window of a passing car, a typical A-road carvery or steak house is so unremarkable as to be invisible – no more noticeable than a pylon or a pigeon.
But, as with pylons and pigeons, once picked out from the general background hum of the urban landscape, a certain strangeness is revealed. I find the décor of my local carvery restaurant fascinating. The interior is themed and the theme appears to be some idiosyncratic rendering of England or Englishness. This would be less remarkable if the restaurant was in Kazakhstan or Shenzhen, but in Birmingham, it strikes me as a little strange. A kind of doublethink is required: I recognise the theme as Englishness only by acknowledging that the restaurant looks nothing like any other restaurant I might find in England. I step through the doors and am transported from England to ‘England’. ‘England’ is cheeky, slapstick and oppressive: saucy seaside postcards, stills of Mr Bean and Eric and Ernie, The Beatles larking about on a railway platform. There’s something quite dreamlike and disorienting about eating a mediocre English roast dinner, in a mediocre English restaurant whilst being bombarded with random images of this mythical place called ‘England’.
Another thing I enjoy about the chain experience is the menu text. As with décor, more select restaurants tend toward a less is more ethos. Menus may offer little more than a basic listing of ingredients with the odd arcane culinary verb. In chains however they really go to town with the adjectives. I have invented a fun game to play whilst waiting for your food, it’s called ‘Bottomless Jug’. One player reads out the menu item, the other has to make a stab at the accompanying text. You get disturbingly good at this in a very short time. If you’re dealt a sorbet, the best cards to play are ‘refreshing’ or ‘tangy’. Chocolate is often best parried simply with a ‘chocolatey’, but this is a risky area, rife with exuberance. Only an extremely advanced player could arrive at the audacious ‘chocolatissimo!’ The basic rule is to try and imagine how you might describe the item if you’d been trapped in a cave without food or water for days… and then inject more longing. Occasionally the text will veer away from these florid descriptions to include some other, always useful or reassuring information, for example to inform you that your menu choice is ‘great any day of the week’. It’s Wednesday, it’s only 4.30pm, but it’s ok, no one is judging you.