After Hours: A little bit of comfort on the road
Stars and Stripes June 27, 2007
For all the hullabaloo that goes on these days about the domination of chain stores and restaurants in the States, there’s a certain level of comfort in knowing that smothered and covered hash browns at the Waffle House in Beaufort, S.C., are going to be the same darn smothered and covered ’browns at the Waffle House in Marietta, Ga.
Yes, it’s a product of these times that a lot of stuff is the same in a lot of locales, but that consistency can be a silver lining to the corporatized cloud.
Every developed country has that corporate comfort food, the cuisine of a nation, or maybe just a region. I’m from Minnesota and we don’t have Waffle House. The first time I went to a Waffle House in the South, I ordered the waffles, but that’s another story.
England’s corporate comfort food begins and ends with the Little Chef, a chain of nearly 200 restaurants that seems to have a franchise every five miles on any given motorway in the country.
My reporter colleagues scoffed when I suggested writing about the Little Chef, and maybe you’ll also call me to task for taking the easy out. I respectfully disagree. At the least, a chain whose slogan is “Fueling the nation” deserves a cursory look.
Whether we realize it or not, we Americans are subjected to countless cultural curiosities every day in England, whether we’re driving to work or driving to a club.
I’m sure many of you have seen that diminutive Little Chef on the side of the road and wondered, “What’s that food like? Eh, I’ll hit the BX food court.”
So consider this a service, for newcomers who are curious about all things British or those who have been here awhile but haven’t summoned up the nerve to step into the Chef.
The menu is full of the standard burgers and fries, a variety of breakfasts and some dinner entrees that just aren’t the kind of thing folks should be ordering in a massive chain.
While the sausage and mash was passable, my instincts are guessing that lasagna wouldn’t be an authentic Italian experience when ordered there.
The Olympic Breakfast was quite good, hearty portions of that standard English breakfast that is all fat, protein and beans. The menu also includes soups, salads and jacket potatoes.
There’s no alcohol and the places are smoke-free, but there’s enough variety on the menu to satisfy a car full of hungry family members, and with prices hovering around the 6 or 7 pound mark, it won’t kill your wallet either.
Part of me is dying to write, “No you fools! Get off the motorway, drive a few miles and you’ll find a locally owned pub that will serve you quality food as you support a small business.”
But the fact is the Little Chef’s burgers taste the same as pub fare, plus there’s no cramming into a tiny pub table, or sitting on those awkward, backless pub stools.
If the name or basic gist of the menu doesn’t lure you in, maybe these facts will, courtesy of the Little Chef menu. The chain serves 13 million free-range eggs a year. Ditto for sausages. If you lined up all those sausages, it would be as long as the entire stretch of the M1.
They also fry up more than 12 million slices of bacon in a year, which would climb more than 11 stories high if stacked.
How did they get these factoids? I’m not sure. The staff during my visits were too busy to chat, but if enough Brits are eating all those free-range eggs and meat, the Chef must be doing something right. Or maybe it’s just because it’s conveniently located off the motorway.
At any rate, it’s a chain restaurant, like IHOP, Perkins, Denny’s, Huddle House or Waffle House in your hometown. As an American, you know the drill. Nothing special, but no unwanted surprises either.
At least now you know what’s going on behind the smiling visage of that little chef on the Little Chef sign. Your cultural assimilation continues.
See previous After Hours reviews here.
Little Chef restaurants
Location: Turn your head on the motorway, and you’ll probably see one. They live at basically every motorway rest stop in the country.
Food: Basic chain restaurant menu, with English standards, burgers and dinner entrees. Most meals cost about 7 pounds.
Clientele: Your mum, your nan, your missus and your mates. Anyone.