When I go back to England I talk a lot about how much I miss chain restaurants. England does chain-restaurants-that-feel-like-they-could-be-nice-independent-restaurants-if-they-were-just-a-bit-smaller-and-the-staff-were-polite really well. And I miss that. If you live in England, you know the ones: Cafe Rouge, Carluccio’s, Jamie’s Italian, Wagamama, Pizza Express. There’s always a table, there’s always 2-for-1 vouchers online and the menu is always the same.
I’m a really boring person and I just like to know what I’m getting. Melbourne is jam-packed with excellent independent cafes and restaurants with super nice staff and regularly-changing menus and it’s a bloody nightmare.
At Cafe Rouge I get the chicken baguette with mustardy-mayo and fries. At Wagamama the salmon with soba noodles. My mum and her friend met at Pizza Express for years and always had the same order, a Veneziana and a side of dough balls with garlic butter. Delectable, reliable, affordable. Plus 25p from every Veneziana goes towards saving Venice from impending immersion in the Adriatic Sea, so my mum and her friend have probably wrenched at least one palazzo from the depths.
The last time I was in England, my brother and I went for coffee at Carluccio’s then lunch at Cafe Rouge (at my request). I got the chicken baguette and it was excellent. Just as I knew it would be.
Pizza Hut used to be one of those places. I don’t remember exactly when Pizza Hut went downmarket though I imagine it was post the cheese-stuffed-crust revolution yet pre the the tiny-hamburgers-stuffed-crust obscenity. But when Pizza Hut was good, it was really good. No one had a specific order at Pizza Hut because everyone’s specific order was the buffet. Waiting for the fresh pizza to come out so you could get the best slice. Even the salad bar was enticing – croutons, bacon bits, honey-mustard dressing.
I remember the Pizza Hut buffet on a rainy day in Bristol in about 2002. I think it’s the only time I’ve been to Bristol and I remember cobbled streets and Pizza Hut and an old violin shop. I’d gone with my mum to buy a violin – French or German, circa 1900. We’d succeeded and gone for pizza across cobbled streets in the rain. I expect my violin came, too. Maybe it had its own chair.
There were only two occupied tables in the whole place – us and a large table of even larger businessmen. But they were between us and the buffet, which did not turn out well for us. After a couple of sad trips and a few meagre remains, the waitress noticed our plight and started stopping by our table with fresh pizza from the kitchen, letting us have first pick. It was really nice of her to do that. A moment of solidarity. A hot and satisfying slice of the pie. Perhaps, in retrospect, that’s why Pizza Hut didn’t turn out so well. The staff were too polite for the English market.
Of course I have concerns about the unending destruction of corporate capitalism. But life is difficult and surprising – lunch shouldn’t have to be.
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