On Friday evening my partner & I thought we would try something very different on the culinary front and so headed over to the "Little Chef" at Popham services (just of the A303 near Basingstoke) in an attempt to find out what all the fuss was about.
By ‘fuss' (And as way of an brief recap for anyone who didn't see the program) I mean the mini media storm that's been generated by the channel 4 documentary entitled "Big Chef takes on Little Chef" in which the multi award winning celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal takes on the challenge of turning around the fortunes of the once 'iconic' British brand ‘Little Chef' at the request of LC's own marketing ‘guru', spin-doctor & CEO Ian "blue skies" Pegler. (If I haven't conveyed enough sarcasm in that last statement, then please watch the documentary & you yourself will surely want to ring his patronising ‘blue skies' neck shortly afterwards!)
Anyhow back to the evening in hand & I have to say that from the outset we were (unsurprisingly) very unsure as to what laid in store for our taste buds by attending such an establishment, since previous forays into the road side diners had always ended in catastrophically horrific culinary (or otherwise) experiences!
However as first impressions go, they'd done the decent job as not only did they manage to entice us through the doors in the first place (by the preceding media coverage, the fresh / bold exterior, general tidiness on the place & weirdly cute mini LS's painted on the car park spaces), but they'd actually managed to raise our expectations (by virtue of Heston's organic, free range, locally sourced ideals & fact that the entire place was packed out) that what we were about to eat, might not be our last upper after all!
This unexpected good ‘'first impression' was further fortified by manager Michael's upbeat & extremely proud announcement that "it's a 40 minute wait for food, I'm afraid!" (I guess seeing a restaurant you've work in for 20+ years finally bursting at the seams is more than enough of an excuse to wear a ‘real' honest smile' when you greet your patrons!
As directed, we duly took our position in the side restaurant and amused ourselves by reviewing the historic articles & images of ‘little chef through the decades' (A strategic marketing ploy to anchor LC's position in British cuisine) until the demographic of those around us caught my attention. Now without wishing to offend anyone I should point out that it was simply the juxtaposition of those sat opposite (Namely a ‘morbidly obese family' that unfortunately you might expect to find in any fast food joint & the ‘suited & booted management couple' that would be more suited at a charity luncheon than LC) that made me think "that's odd!" since they appeared to be from opposite ends of the culinary spectrum, yet had come together in such an say establishment to share a common interest in food! But maybe Heston's magic was working after all? Maybe he'd reached the masses? Maybe they were both ‘just passing' or maybe this was a clash of social circles yet to unfold! Well whatever the case 45 minutes had passed & the good first impression was starting to be a distant memory as not even a drink had been offered whilst we patiently waited & even in the old style LC, you'd expect to have been hassled about wanting ‘refill' by this point!
Just in the nick of time the Polish waitress came over and announced "Your tablez ready zir" before escorting us to our seats (directly opposite the grill) in the main dining area were we sat down to review the new menu. Pleasant enough it was, the new menu appeared picture less (great for those that can actually read!), without a myriad of endless junk offerings & amply described to suggest wholesome ‘county named' produce was the offering of the day. Interesting ‘classic's' remained (the All Day Breakfast) albeit with a new twist & even the odd, but rare ‘Heston tweak' prevailed!
I duly opted for a classic breaded scampi, tartar sauce & simple wedge of lemon to start (the safer option than mussels with which to build confidence) as they couldn't surely get this wrong? Following this with braised red wine Ox cheeks & mash potatoes for my main with a Pilsner beer to ‘wet the whistle' whilst I waited. ‘M' ordered the beer battered Haddock, thick cut chips & "smell of the chippy" atomiser!
Whilst waiting for our own food to arrive it became obviously that the staff were very much under pressure! Not only were tickets & orders still pouring in, but the already cooked food was either left waiting under the heat lamps or wasn't required in the first place. Manager, turned chef Michael had joined the behind the grill action (trying to restore some sort of order) & even started cooking some poor sod's meal to keep things flowing. Meanwhile numerous waiting staff huddled around the pass to debate "what's occurring earrr!". It was at this time I started to consider the fact that although you can change the menu, paint the walls & gain media attention. Staff training, supporting then & providing a decent organisation to work within is paramount if you want to be a successful business, regardless of how committed your people appear & this wasn't what appeared to be happening at LC!
Apprehension grew when my starter turned up as I wanted a "food explosion" (to plagiarise Mr "blue skies" Pegler's for a second) but unfortunately It was more of a ‘dieing fizz' as my heart sunk, since not only was presentation left seriously lacking. But the taste / texture combination was more bland & rubbery, than fresh & crispy! Normally I would send such ‘pap' back, but seeing as the kitchen surfaces were festooned with scraps, half cooked battered fish & staff figtening over tickets, I felt I should take my chances with what I had & just see what the main course turned out like.
It didn't take long before the rather angry & loud couple opposite were pre-empting our opinion (on the delights in store with the mains) as their battered Haddock & thick cut chips had arrived late to the unforgettable statement of "Why the f*ck would I want the "smell of the chippy" atomiser? This place already smells like a f*cking chippy already!"
Unsurprisingly this got my back up as no matter what, being rude to the waitress is like ‘shooting the messenger'....its not on & it doesn't get you anywhere! Likewise it clearly stated on the menu that I came with the "smell of the chippy" atomiser, so why bark when you could simple say "no thank you!".....Or was that the demographic clash of social circles about to unfold before us?
Well no matter, as the ‘polite' male continued to broadcasting his views to those around him with classics like "this is the sh*test oil socked cr*p I've even eaten!" & "WAS everything OK? Of course it wasn't OK!"
By this stage "M's" main had turned up & apart from not being offered the "smell of the chippy" atomiser (we considered asking for it, but the waitress had vanished) all looked good. The batter was crisp, clearly contained ‘beer' & the fish quite tasty. The chips were indeed chunky & thankfully made from potato, none some mass produced, flour filled imitation! Ok so the tartar sauce appeared to be from "old LC warehouse stock", but all in all the dish was quite good. The real shame was that my main didn't arrive until I'd eaten a good portion of "M's" meal...sorry dear!
When my own meal (braised Ox cheeks in red wine) did turn up, I;m pleased to report it looked, smelt & tasted really rather good. In fact the only complaint I would level at LC was the annoyingly small portion of mash! I mean there is cost cutting & then there is a step too far ‘Mr blueskys!' However yet again LC had surpassed my expectations & delivered a meal you're average gastro pubs would have been half pleased with. So maybe the couple opposite just got the raw deal? Maybe not but whatever they got, they deserve it for being rude to the poor waitress.
In due course I'd cleaned every morsel from my plate that I could manage with a fork (difficult when mostly you are eating gravy) & enjoyed each mouthful. I considered a pudding, but decided against it as nothing really stood out & the waiting staff were adopting the classical ‘I can't see you behaviour'. As such we complimented the waitress (when she eventually cleared our plates 10 minutes after we have finished eating & been looking around like Meercats for some service) that the food was better than expected & started to leave.
Whilst paying the bill I notice the tips jar was generously full of notes from obviously happy customers (Not to mention potential theft waiting to happen being so close to the open door!) & as such started thinking about the whole experience in terms of satisfaction, provision of a service & LC in context to its peers.
In conclusion I would say that I basically went to LC under the assumption that the food was going to be bad, the service poor & the entire media coverage/recruitment of Heston/discussion about ‘quality' / desire to provide a ‘honest meal' pure marketing ploy! HOWEVER that's not what I got.
Instead I received a warm welcome to a restaurant (that puts lots of others places to shame), a desperately keen workforce struggling on (as best they could given the circumstanced) to provide a ‘reasonable' service for a real mixed bag of customers in a poorly targeted establishment. (This being the fault of brand management, not the staff on duty ‘Mr Blueskies Pegler!)
Specifically the food wasn't consistently good, but then it wasn't consistently bad either. The raw ingredients were OK, but not great (Brand management have obviously cut costs even after promising Heston they wouldn't) & considerable better than LC's peer restaurants (I use the term loosely) like McCrapos or BurgerKack!
Service was poor & inattentive, but given the obvious limited training, pressure of the night & need to feed the mixed masses something requiring more than just knowledge of the microware oven & ability to count! I'd happily concede as adequate & getting there!
All in all these people were doing a good job & if I wanted food in a rush, whilst traversing the country on route to another destination I might consider LC as a suitable place to stop now that I've experience Popham, whereas I would never have done so before! (So all due respect to the branch LC staff as you are doing a good job and I'm sure it will come good in the end)
THAT SAID I would never eat in LC again as I don't consider food as fuel (it's a pleasure that should be savoured & enjoyed), service as an optional extra (we should respect the trade as much as our continental neighbours do) or quality as something that needs to fit within oppressive profit margins. But then I guess that's the point, that's the juxtaposition & farcical situation any foodie would find themselves in should they stop at any LC since even with Heston Blumenthal's input. They are still only ever going to punt out mass produced pap for the masses, at next to no cost for maximum profit in order to feed people who don't really care about what they are eating, just so long as it's fed to them quickly!
Yep it's a shame to say this but it's becoming more obvious by the day that some people just don't care about what they shovel in & feed to their kids so long as its within budget. The fact that it will cost them their health at a later stage in life doesn't come into it and big brands understand this. Afterall McCrapos or BurgerKack exist!. Still at least LC are given these people a taster of something different and that can only be a good start!
Still if you want quality, decent service and a meal to enjoy then frequent the restaurants you know & trust. Avoid the big brands that employ marketing people that talk about ‘blue skies' & profile margins before any form of animal welfare or food miles & trust your instinct. I purly went to LC to check it out & having done so I wouldn't suggest the rest of you do unless you are really, really hungry & the only other choice is your own arm or McCrapos!