Thursday, 18 April 2013
The Worst Restaurants in London
I know what you're thinking. What's the point of going to the effort of sending me to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Piccadilly when the resulting post isn't the unqualified calamity you were hoping for? That's just the way the prawn cracker crumbled I'm afraid - Mr Wu's really wasn't all that bad, and in fact given the location, the clientèle and the price point, it acquitted itself rather well. 4/10 isn't a marvellous score by any stretch of the imagination but there is a world of difference between the merely mediocre and the downright awful; between the noble failures and the determinedly dire; between the disappointing and the diabolical. And so by way of an apology for the Chinese Burn that never was, here are my top (or should that be bottom?) five Worst Restaurants in London.
But first, some runners up, and a confession. The only reason Planet Hollywood, Chiquito, Bella Pasta, Garfunkel's, and a number of other lowest-common-denominator chains, ripoffs and ripoff chains aren't on this list is because (thank the stars) I haven't yet been to them. I'm fairly sure they're awful, but unless you're trapped in Gatwick waiting for a delayed long-haul flight, they're very easy to avoid.
Also, although I have never really enjoyed anything I've eaten at Yo! Sushi, Pizza Express, Ask, Zizzi's, TGI Friday's or Gourmet Burger Kitchen, and their ubiquitous presence on our high streets is a source of constant irritation, they each have their fans and deserve at least grudging respect for doing what they do with consistency. The fact that the cardboardy, beige Pizza Express pizzas have spread like a nasty rash all over the country is depressing, but depressing isn't enough to win a spot in the bottom five.
These five restaurants are not merely depressing, or overpriced, or cynical, or unpleasant. The food isn't just disappointing, the décor not merely drab, the service nothing so straightforward as incompetent. They are a special kind of awful, the kind that requires a particular set of variables to work in miserable harmony. Most bad restaurants, remember, soon go out of business; people vote with their feet. For somewhere bad to survive (and even to expand, God help us) needs very specific factors, ranging from a captive or clueless audience (airports, or tourist honeypots) to a glitzy brand or celebrity endorsement. They may also survive by virtue of using the cheapest possible ingredients (Brakes Bros is the go-to supplier for bad restaurants), marked up so ruthlessly that even a half-empty restaurants turns a profit. Ironically, running a bad restaurant takes energy, and thought, and skill. And these are the worst of the worst.
5. Frankie & Benny's
So there was plenty of competition for the fifth place in the list, and in fact I have a horrible suspicion that Frankie & Benny's may not even be the worst nationwide fake Italian-American-themed diner chain. But it earns a spot here because of the time my flight from Gatwick South Terminal was delayed and I slunk reluctantly in hoping the vast, laminated menu held at least one edible item. Well, if it did, I didn't find it. After a 45-minute wait (maybe they had to change the fuse on the microwave), flabby chicken wings came doused in a sickly sweet BBQ sauce that must have come right from the bottom of the Brakes Bros Bargain Bin, and a burger so bland it could have been mistaken for a lump of soft furnishing. I think it cost about £2,000. Something like that anyway.
Yes, there are other chains, maybe no worse and maybe no better than this. But Frankie & Benny's makes this list for what it represents - a vast, utterly charmless, relentlessly expanding chain serving food at investor-friendly markups, who have learned that by inventing a faux-nostalgic backstory and papering the walls with black and white pictures of New Yorkers from the 1930s (who would have laughed out loud had they been presented with anything from the F&B menu even then) they can somehow convince their victims - sorry, customers - that what they are eating somehow constitutes "authentic". Don't be fooled. They are the devil.
Location: All over the bloody place
4. Fire and Stone
It's easy to laugh at Fire & Stone, perhaps too easy. Anywhere that thinks duck hoi sin cheese pizza (I shit you not) is a menu item worth laminating, and that around Christmas time will sell you something involving turkey, brie, cranberry and gravy, is clearly setting itself up as the Frank Spencer of dining experiences. But to dismiss them as an elaborate joke is to ignore the real problem here; namely that with the brazen use of sheer, excruciating, pointless novelty for the sake of novelty they are convincing hapless diners that, against their better judgement, they really do want to eat a pizza topped with guacamole and roast potato and what's more, said guacamole and roast potato pizza is somehow an improvement on the status quo.
Proper pizza is a wonderful thing, as anyone who's ever eaten one from Donna Margherita in Battersea, Santa Maria in Ealing, Franco Manca in Brixton or the Pizza Pilgrims truck in Soho will tell you. It doesn't need messing about with, it doesn't need improving. It's almost as perfect a foodstuff as has ever existed, which is why they've been making it in Naples with a recipe pretty much unchanged for hundreds of years. The arrogance of anywhere that looks at an honest, beautiful margherita pizza and thinks "you know what? I wonder if we dump whatever we have in the fridge on this we can convince some witless tourists it's the way things are headed? Also, swap the base for semolina flour - I know it tastes of Lego but it's way more difficult for the chefs to cock up". I really do not like Fire & Stone.
Location: Covent Garden, Spitalfields, Oxford, Portsmouth and Westfield
3. Rainforest Café
Many "family-friendly" restaurants fall into the same trap. They spend so long worrying about themes and distractions and ball pools and paper hats and free crayon sets to keep the kiddies from getting bored and tearing the place up, that by the time it comes to the food, all their energies have already been spent. Rainforest Café has that problem, too, but because their budget is so many times bigger than other places, the Grand Canyon-sized gulf between the ludicrous animatronic animals and water displays and the - for want of a better word - crap that comes out of the kitchen is even more jarring.
Actually, you can probably find equally bad food elsewhere - the sad, greasy cowpat of a quesadilla was upsetting bordering on tragic, but I bet there's no better at Chiquito, and I'm sure the burger at Garfunkels is very much of the same ilk as the dry, rubbery discs of mystery meat inside sweet sesame seed buns at the RC - but dear lord the prices. That quesadilla - just cheese and vegetables in a thin case that had all the personality of a sheet of greaseproof paper - was £15.60; a toffee and banana crepe £6.95; a plain Caesar salad an astonishing £14.40. The markups, for these are clearly very cheap ingredients, must be some of the highest in London, and only a trickle of harassed parents and their offspring must be enough to keep the place afloat. Which is just as well, as on my visit half the restaurant was roped off and dark. Perhaps it's a sign it's not much longer for this world. We can but hope.
2. The Hard Rock Café
The only thing more wretched than the experience of eating at Hard Rock Café is the fact that it's always so popular. Every time I pass this place on the bus it's had a queue out of the door, which even if you assume that nobody ever goes back (and I think it's a fairly safe assumption), that's still pretty staggering.
If there was something - anything - about the place that would justify even the most cursory interest then I might begin to be able to get my head around it, but no - I do not have a single nice word to say about the place. It's hateful. We were served gloopy overcooked ribs in cheap sauce, a burger so inedibly cremated it actually made me laugh out loud, and then were presented with a bill that wouldn't have looked unreasonable for lunch at the Ledbury. Given its international brand and stratospheric prices, you'd be justified in thinking that maybe the décor was worth a visit, but all the cases of memorabilia looked like they had seen better days, and were of pretty marginal interest to even the most rabid rock and roll fan (a guitar Adam Clayton played. A couple of times. Woopie-do), and the bathrooms looked like a bomb had hit them. Where does the money go? It doesn't bear thinking about.
1. Aberdeen Steak House / Angus Steak House / Scotch Steak House
Nobody quite knows the distinction between these three near-identical but for some reason differently named restaurants. As far as I can gather, Aberdeen Steak House and Angus Steak House are owned by the same company, while Scotch Steak House split a little while ago from the main group and decided to forge its own path selling, er, exactly the same food as the others. So who knows. And who cares, because all you need to know is that, for more reasons than I have time to list here, they are a collection of the very worst restaurants in London, and most likely Britain, and very possibly the world.
Oh go on then, just a small list. The décor is battered and aged, either very nearly falling apart or very actually fallen apart. Staff are so uninterested and chippy they may as well be working in a Post Office, and manage the very impressive feat of doing a whole evening's service without looking anyone - least of all each other - in the eye. The food is terrifying - mealy, bruised steaks that taste of blood and liver, frozen chips, tinned mushrooms and a list of unfortunate 70s classics like prawn cocktail and ("our famous") melted Camembert made by people who neither know nor care what they're doing.
And for this bitterly miserable experience, with absolutely nothing to recommend it whatsoever, you'll pay a small fortune. And you'll leave feeling broken and dejected, bankrupt in every sense of the word, and not a little queasy. I have never known anywhere to suck the joy out of eating to quite such a degree - it's like having dinner in a gulag; completely and utterly devoid of hospitality and warmth and everything a restaurant should be. So while Hard Rock and Rainforest Café and all the others listed above are bad - very bad indeed - there still is nowhere to rival the sheer catastrophic, diabolical awfulness of Aberdeen Angus. A most worthy "winner".
Location: Not telling. It's for your own good.
Thanks to Abandon Spoon for the Christmas Pizza picture, and Shit London for the brilliant Aberdeen Angus lighting failure picture.