June 7th, 2009

Feast

Little Chef

Location: Popham Services on the A303, Hampshire. England.

The first time I tuned in to Little Chef's existence as anything other than fast food background noise, it was when I read a blurb in Restaurant magazine: the chain was insolvent and had gone into administration. Many of its branches were sold off over the course of the next several issues of the magazine. By early this year, though, there was better news: Heston Blumenthal had been brought in as a consultant to help revamp the menu and the chain's presentation.

I've been curious about the chain ever since. A full English breakfast this morning killed our appetite for well-rated Hampshire pubs, so instead, spotting the first Little Chef we'd seen since we'd started looking out for them weeks ago, we went there to try out a few dishes.

I hadn't realized that it had always been a sit-down fast food place. The tables were full, but there was plenty of space at the bar. The restaurant had the look of a place that's been made over: chalked-up specials on blackboards affixed to tile counters; silverware wrapped in black paper napkins; two swanky wine-maintaining/dispensing/cooling devices which could hold four bottles each. The staff were labeled with their jobs on the back of their black or red outfits, followed by a quotation about food from everyone from A.E. Milne to Sophia Loren. The bill arrived with a little packet of Jelly Bellies each.

I ordered the pork belly special, meltingly tender and tasty, served on a serviceable greens-and-tomato salad. C. had the macaroni and cheese, the competent equal of a microwavable ready-meal one from M&S or Sainsbury's. It too came with salad, a sensible and regularly used choice throughout a menu which included a sizable array of promising-sounded desserts. After our mains, we were full - not because they were too large - they weren't - but because we were still coasting on that full English from a few hours earlier.

Not until just now, however, did I realize that the only branch made over by Blumenthal was the one we went to (Very lucky, under the circumstances!) - and that this week's latest "drama" is the chain's intended roll-out of the menu to the rest of the chain - without the consultant's knowledge. At least drama helps keep it in the news and ups the odds of its survival. Whether it was worth surviving before the makeover, I can't say. As it stands, I wouldn't mind going back.